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Follow That Theme
At the Flower & Garden Show, the beauty begins with the idea
The centerpiece of DIG's first display garden for the Northwest Flower & Garden Show is called "The Future Lies Within The Egg." It's a 7 1/2-foot-wide nest woven of colored dogwood twigs and filled with mammoth mosaic eggs crafted by Vashon Island artist Clare Dohna.
IT'S TEMPTING TO deconstruct the display gardens at the Flower & Garden Show, breaking them down into bits and pieces. And no wonder. The show is a sensory overload of plants, water, art, color and fragrances — a pleasant overload, but a little daunting, nevertheless. Concentrating on the details of a pond's planting or an arbor's construction is easier than taking it all in.

But this year, try just soaking up the concepts behind the gardens. Each entrant needs to decide what to do with a few hundred square feet. Where does that inspiration come from?

Creating a coherent garden is a goal we all seek, whether at home or in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center for five days, and the display gardens are a microcosm of this elusive yet vital quest. How well the garden creator is able to resist distractions and stick to the purity and purpose of the original idea is what makes the garden compelling. Or not.
Illustration Now In Bloom
The wire-netting bush (Corokia cotoneaster) is a perfect winter plant because it is hard to tell if the tiny leaves are on or off the twisted branches. It pretty much looks its gray and ghostly self no matter what the season. A delicate-looking plant growing very slowly to 8 feet, it needs a warm, sheltered spot, sunshine and well-drained soil, and shows up best when grown in a pot where it doesn't disappear into the landscape. Its gnarled shape takes well to pruning to open it up a bit, and the cut branches are striking in arrangements.
Brazilian garden designer Roberto Burle Marx said it best in a 1994 interview: "The first thing I want to say is that a garden ought not to be natural! The basic principles of contrast, texture, dimension and proportion are very important to understand. But there must be an idea! If I can create a garden without that, it wouldn't be a garden." If the idea springs from the soul, aesthetics and experiences of the garden creator, we believe it really is a garden rather than a hastily cobbled together showpiece.

Sylvia Matlock of DIG Floral and Garden on Vashon Island is designing her first show garden this year, born of giant mosaic eggs and a haunting crime. Last January, someone sneaked into DIG in the middle of the night to poison and cut off hundreds of plants. Sylvia and her husband, Ross, were devastated. As they dealt with their shock and struggled to restore the nursery, the idea of a garden based on a theme of global rejuvenation slowly percolated in Sylvia's brain. She was inspired by the universal shape of giant eggs created by Vashon mosaic artist Clare Dohna. The nasty crime gave rise to the concept of rebirth, while, in turn, the powerful creative process involved in putting together the garden distracted Sylvia and Ross from thinking about what had happened.

Harkening back to her childhood appreciation of the natural-history dioramas at Chicago's Field Museum, Sylvia sees her garden as a little slice of what the future may hold. The centerpiece of the garden is a huge nest woven of colored dogwood twigs cradling a quartet of Dohna's 4-foot-high eggs. Fat mosaic slugs by Vashon artist Elaine Summers slime through the garden. The textural, architectural plants relate to the theme. "A restio or a euphorbia would work," explains Sylvia, "but never a delphinium." While dealing with all the challenges of making her first display garden, Sylvia never lost sight of thematic consistency. "I want it to ooze atmosphere," she says of this most personal garden. "It should have lots of weighty humidity."

Garden designer Linda Plato, also a first-timer at the show, has designed an urban fortress, complete with moat, as a refuge from modern technology. Outside the castle are protectively thorny barrier plantings littered with carcasses of old cell phones, obsolete printers and software. "I never get to relax in my own garden," says Plato. "All I see is work to do." When she crosses the moat to her castle, she leaves behind responsibilities, as well as all that distracting technology.

Other concepts include a beach garden of found objects, a series of gardens nestled in a forest glade, and a nostalgic garden honoring the summer of '77. The show will feature eight acres packed with 27 full-sized gardens. This year, see if it isn't their thematic consistency that excites and inspires more than a pretty wind chime or new kind of paver.

Hear confessions

Valerie Easton will be a panelist at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show Feb. 4-8 in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. On Feb. 4 at 2:30 p.m. in the Rainier Room, she will join garden designer/writer Lucy Hardiman and Heronswood Nursery co-founder Daniel J. Hinkley to discuss "The Biggest Bloopers We'll Admit To." On Feb. 7, Easton will take up the same topic (at the same time and place) with garden expert Ciscoe Morris and The Seattle Times' "Practical Gardener," Mary Robson.

For tickets and other information, call 206-789-5333 or check out the Web site at

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

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