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Originally published Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Life

At Bellevue Botanical Garden, a beloved perennial border is reborn

At the Bellevue Botanical Garden, the beloved perennial border has been dug up, rethought and reborn, thanks to donations and the smart work of its original designers, Charles Withey and Glenn Price.

NO MATTER how much we love our gardens, most of us harbor a niggling wish to rip it all out and start over. How satisfying it would be to erase our mistakes, disappear our regrettable plants and retrofit with all the features we should have sprung for the first time around.

Such renewal is in the works on a grand scale at the Bellevue Botanical Garden, where the world-renowned Northwest Perennial Alliance Border is being ripped apart and thoroughly renovated. Phase one has just been completed and is a beautiful lesson in designing for lower maintenance.

The border was 17 years old when the alliance took a second look at its ravishing border. Planted in a mad scramble in 1991 in time for the opening of the Bellevue Botanical Garden, the border became the showpiece of the new garden, a huge success that grew ever larger over the years. The original border was created by Charles Price as lead designer, working with his partner, Glenn Withey, Carrie Becker and Bob Lilly. A cadre of dedicated volunteers maintained the border, but they were growing older as the plants were growing denser.

"By 2007, the border was overgrown and overrun with invasives," says alliance President Michele Cournoyer, explaining the decision to essentially start over.

The Bellevue Botanical Garden Society chipped in for new pathways and staircases. Thanks to money from the alliance, as well as donations from area nurseries and individual gardeners, more than a thousand new plants were acquired, just for this first phase. Most exciting, the alliance hired Withey and Price, who had been out of the picture for more than a decade, to come back and update their original creation. "No one understands the border's potential more than those two do," says Cournoyer.

So how did they approach renovating a border so beloved by so many? Ruthlessly and painstakingly, starting with clearing the site, digging out valued plants and using heavy equipment to excavate more than a foot deep to rid the soil of invasives like morning glories, Arum italicum and Ranunculus ficaria. They trucked in more than a hundred yards of new soil. "We're getting all the pathways we originally wanted and more," says Price with satisfaction. Two stone and concrete staircases bisect the border for better access. Benches are placed at strategic vantage points for enjoying the double-border effect.

The designers' own sensibilities and plant palette have changed over the years, and this is reflected in the new planting plan. "We're opening up sightlines and planting for more of a tapestry effect," explains Price. Rather than emphasizing the rare and unusual, they're creating year-round structure and interest with evergreens like nandina, mahonia and boxwood. This go-round, rather than hitting a single summer crescendo, the border offers many lovely notes through the seasons.

More than three-quarters of the plants are new to the border, including hellebores, agapanthus, sedums, oreganos, ornamental grasses, salvias, ferns and sterile geraniums like 'Rozanne' and 'Mavis Simpson' that won't seed about. The designers are using slender gold and green yews to lend a vertical accent without creating shade. They'll be trying out plenty of cool plants, like the new coneflowers, to intrigue sophisticated gardeners.

Peonies, trillium and cyclamen dug and saved from the original border are back in place. What won't be replanted? Not a single astrantia, daylily or non-sterile hardy geranium. "The old border was a vegetative tsunami, a black hole of labor," says Withey. "We're planting for lower maintenance." To ensure that the new border won't go the way of the old, Withey and Price plan to stay involved with the Bellevue Botanical Garden and Parks Department as consultants to do major yearly edits.

"We've slightly reduced the total square footage of the border and combined areas to make a grand sweep," says Cournoyer. "It used to be that by midsummer the border would be so overgrown we'd lose volunteers in there. Now it'll be both more dramatic and more accessible."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com; e-mail her at valeaston@comcast.net.

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Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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