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Originally published Friday, September 21, 2012 at 11:00 AM

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Revamped Bellevue Botanical Garden perennial border a dramatic delight

At 17 years old, the acclaimed Northwest Perennial Alliance Border was overgrown, overrun with invasives, and in need of more hardscape and open space.

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Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.

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LAST TIME I checked in on the Bellevue Botanical Garden's perennial border, designers Glenn Withey and Charles Price had just finished the first phase of a major renovation. At 17 years old, the acclaimed border was overgrown, overrun with invasives, and in need of more hardscape and open space.

Three years later, the border is growing up around the staircases that bisect it. Trees and shrubs lend structure and year-round interest. Perennials are planted in multiples, not only for beauty's sake but also for lower maintenance.

Yet the border has lost none of its dramatic extravagance. The color combinations are still inspired. Deeply ruffled purple poppies, variegated dogwoods, masses of grasses and little treasures like drumstick primroses unfold through the seasons. But the effect is less dense, more welcoming. The stairs, landings and paths make the explosion of plants more accessible to visitors.

Withey and Price walked me through the border recently, pointing out what's working and what needs adjustment or replanting, like the bare spot where rabbits devoured 60 Oriental poppies. The garden, close by a ravine, is a lesson in which plants can survive predation. Many of the trees are wrapped in protective cages until they grow larger, others have been distorted by deer rubbing against the trunks.

Price waves at swathes of ornamental grasses. "Carex testacea is doing well, as is blue oat grass, and the miscanthus are indestructible. But the rabbits ate the Japanese forest grass and the Stipa gigantea."

Some of the roses, like the orange Oso Easy 'Paprika,' have survived and are flowering madly. Fox tail lilies, kniphofia, hellebores, chrysanthemums and nandina are holding their own. Blue flowering catmint (Nepeta spp.) and sea hollies (Eryngium spp.) thrive in the slope's well-drained soil. No doubt the former is left alone because of its aromatic foliage, the latter is protected by its prickliness.

In areas where the soil is heavier, swathes of astilbe and Iris siberica bloomed happily earlier in the season. The designers avoided day lilies because they need constant deadheading. This year they've succumbed to adding a few of the spider types, whose blossoms don't look as nasty as they wither. All the agapanthus have been lost, due more to recent severe winters than to hungry deer.

Even a golden dawn redwood was savaged by the deer, but is recovering. A deer fence is promised; Withey and Price are already planning the tulips and lilies they'll plant once it's built. In the meantime, the two keep adjusting their design philosophy as they run up against the reality of an exposed site and persistent predators.

Climate change has complicated the orchestration of bloom times. "Things are flowering at different times than they used to," says Price, a master of color sequencing. Chilean fire bush (Embothrium), with its vivid red flowers, used to bloom earlier than pink dogwood. But with cooler springs, the two unfortunately flower at the same time. Withey and Price have had to plant a number of deciduous trees to mediate potential color clashes.

The revamped border is coming into its own, growing more beautiful each year. We can all take comfort from the continual tinkering required of even such expert designers. As Price explains, "Gardening is a process, a constant experiment."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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