Pacific Northwest | September 14, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 14, home
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In The Winner's Circle
All honor to those creating green oases on our streets
The circle at 28th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 62nd Street won the "Just For Fun" award for its colorful whirligigs and mosaics. Over the past seven years, the circle has become a focal point for neighborhood energy, as little kids add decorations and their older siblings earn community-service time helping keep it tidy.
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The big awards were for Car Stoppin' Gorgeous, Best Habitat in The Round and Multi-Season Spectacular, among others. Trowels and clippers replaced golden statuettes, the attire was more denim than diaphanous, but suspense and excitement reigned at the second annual Seattle Traffic Circle Garden Contest. Traffic-circle stewards, neighbors and city officials celebrated with a gala potluck dinner and prizes to reward those who go to all the trouble of gardening in the middle of the street.

The Seattle Transportation Department's Liz Ellis dreamed up the contest to show appreciation for how much these green oases contribute to our city's livability. The concrete curbs alone might be sufficient to calm traffic, but it's the explosion of plants within the circles that make that slowing down pleasurable.

It is a challenge to garden in the round, surrounded by paving, car exhaust and less-than-careful drivers, so Ellis hopes the contest will encourage neighborhood gardeners to keep on dragging hoses and replacing plants run over by cars. While the city provides the initial round of plantings to get the circle going, including the customary tree in the center, it is up to nearby home owners to maintain the traffic circle. Many go far beyond weeding and watering to design something unique, chip in money for new plants, and contribute from their own gardens. Ellis and her crew hear stories of drivers stopping their cars and offering donations to people out tending their traffic circles.

I was one of the judges this year, and was amazed at the creativity and persistence of the gardeners, a tenacity matched by the plants that carry on and even thrive in such inhospitable conditions.

While many of the traffic circles are as casual and fluffy as a cottage garden, a winner at Boylston Avenue East and East Thomas Street stood out for its formality. Tended since 1985 by Lise Leistner, the design is a boxwood hedge encircling several photinia trimmed up into tree shapes. A new category of "Streetside Suitability" was invented to reward this circle for harmonizing with the look of the old brick apartment buildings that surround it.

The People's Choice Award, at 17th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 113th, garnered more than 400 votes. Retired landscape contractor Hank Bobala waters daily, and changes out the plants seasonally. A sign in the circle warns that it's under constant surveillance; these gardeners take their hard work and civic contributions seriously, and don't want them messed with.

The rules for planting traffic circles are mostly about visibility; plants should be kept under 2 feet high (except for the tree in the middle), the plantings need to be transparent enough so people can see around and through them, neither sidewalks nor sight lines should be obstructed. A goal is for every parking strip and circle to be as sustainable as possible, requiring little water and fertilizer.

Even within these guidelines, this year's winners put on a surprising show of color, texture and varying heights. "I never used to think much of Shasta daisies," said one of the judges, "but after touring the traffic circles I appreciate them — they look like a big bouquet."

If you'd like to grow living bouquets in the middle of your street, you can get on the city's waiting list for a traffic circle. Rallying the neighbors is an important first step — everyone living close by needs to agree. Each year, depending on funding, the city installs 60 to 65 new traffic circles, with an average size of 16 feet in diameter, each costing between $7,500 and $10,000.

Check out the Seattle Transportation Department's Web page which has a virtual tour of the 2003 Streetside Garden Contest, with color photos of this year's winners and also-rans. By calling Ellis at 206-684-5008, or perusing the Web page, you can learn all about the guidelines for streetside planting. Also available is a recommended planting list, which evolves as Ellis and crew learn more about which plants grow too tall or just aren't tough enough to survive out there in the street.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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