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Fight the Flowers That Be

A skirmish breaks out at the Bellevue Botanical Garden Hostilities have broken out on the Border, a battleground of colliding cultures. No, we’re not talking about a national border, but about one of the most famously beautiful spots on the...

A skirmish breaks out at the Bellevue Botanical Garden

Hostilities have broken out on the Border, a battleground of colliding cultures. No, we’re not talking about a national border, but about one of the most famously beautiful spots on the Eastside: the Northwest Perennial Alliance Border at 12001 Main Street. Besides being one of the principal attractions of the Bellevue Botanical Garden, the Border has been internationally celebrated, thanks to features in famous gardening and horticulture magazines in years past.

And if you visit, you can clearly see what sparked bitter controversy within the ranks of the region’s most dedicated gardeners — a passionate lot indeed. The Border is getting a radical overhaul. Long-beloved landmarks are getting yanked to make way for a whole new vision that is taking shape.

With half of the overhaul completed, two distinct personalities are now on display: a literal “before and after” shot illustrating a dramatic shift in the philosophy behind the Border and in modern attitudes toward display gardens in general. In fact, the renovation really involves a rethinking from the ground up — a clean slate with the bulldozer as eraser.

A source of intense pride for Northwest plant lovers, the Border was born in 1991 as a vision shared by some of the region’s most creative and influential garden designers: Carrie Becker, Bob Lilly, Glenn Withey and Charles Price. The Bellevue Parks Department gave it a permanent home as part of the then-fledgling BBG. From the start, Northwest Perennial Alliance members (now numbering 1,365) have been responsible for planting and maintaining the Border, mostly through the efforts of a devoted corps of volunteers. The NPA also hosts garden tours, lectures, classes, seed exchanges and plant sales. So why tear it up?


In fact, the renovation really involves a rethinking from the ground up — a clean slate with the bulldozer as eraser.


“Great gardeners are not always necessarily great designers,” explains George Lasch, who was hired in March 2008 to supervise the renovation.

“It became a classic gardening-by-committee problem, and the editing choices made a decade ago led to problems that we need to address today.” He’s clearly stung by some Border lovers’ enraged belief that he’s laying waste to beauty. “We are saving things,” he insists. “We would love to save more, but can’t because of the editing and maintenance choices of the past.” He points to a looming catalpa. “This was planted as a cutback shrub. But it was never cut back and is now a big tree, swallowing up the other nice trees. So it will go.”

Lasch is a friendly, articulate gardener who balances hands-on pragmatism with a seemingly unlimited fund of horticultural knowledge.

He explains that the NPA Board and BBG began collaborating in 2007 to define a new list of design objectives: reducing maintenance needs, improving visitor accessibility with an earthy stone-concrete staircase to negotiate the Border’s treacherous grassy slope, blending the Border with its larger context in the BBG, and performing environmental editing.

Environmental editing means widespread digging. Some of the beauties are invasive species that need to be eradicated in favor of preexisting native plants, says Lasch. “Growing vigorously isn’t necessarily a good thing. There were plants that were hot a decade ago, or that were harmlessly introduced, where we now know better and need to be more cautious. Just because it’s pretty, we can’t disregard a plant’s potential invasiveness.”

Lasch was hired after a schism occurred between the Border Committee and the NPA Board, which pushed for the renovation. The Border Committee opposed the plan and was eventually dissolved, leading to the abrupt departure of some of the original volunteers. The atmosphere is still so caustic that numerous attempts to obtain statements from dissenters went unanswered.

“There were lots of objections,” Lasch concedes, “many well grounded, but not reasonably able to be done, such as ‘We should save everything.’” Two of the Border’s original designers, Glenn Withey and Charles Price, were asked to spearhead the renovation, having bowed out of their original association with the Border in the mid-1990s. In a sense, then, the NPA is going back to its roots.

In another sense, it’s ripping out traditions by the roots. “The NPA still wants to showcase perennials,” says Withey. “The difference is that this border will have more structure.” He also points out that several noxious invasive weeds started out as “selected cultivars” but seeded in. “The climate shift seems to have helped them become more aggressive, and no one was doing anything to eradicate them from the garden. The garden now will have twice-a-year evaluations — to see if any plants are becoming invasive.”

Some disillusioned Border devotees may not be coming out so much anymore. “I think in some ways the heyday of gardening is over,” Withey reflects. “Younger people are into growing veggies, wanting to be ‘sustainable.’ Those who got involved with perennials in the early 1980s are getting older.” Withey contends that it’s crucial “to do something new to capture attention. If things are static, people lose interest.” 

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