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Originally published Friday, June 21, 2013 at 11:02 AM

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New attractions bring more wow for the Bellevue Botanical Garden

Work is expected to be finished by autumn 2014.

Special to The Seattle Times

Local news partner - Plant Talk

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

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THE BELLEVUE Botanical Garden opened in 1992, making it a mere baby in the botanical-garden world, where time is measured in mature trees and lush acres. But with a world-class perennial border, a dramatic new Ravine Experience and 300,000 visitors a year, the garden at just 21 years old is an impressive place. A new, Olson Kundig Architects-designed visitor center is under way, too, promising to amp up the experience for those who come to see it all.

When I visited a few weeks ago, I was reminded of how beautifully cared-for the gardens are. Denise Lane of the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society says the city is dedicated to maintaining the gardens. The all-volunteer BBG Society has raised nearly $5 million of the $11 million needed for the new buildings and gardens. (The rest came from the city of Bellevue.)

The Shorts Visitor Center will remain the "living room" of the place, joined by a complex that includes a classroom for school programs, catering kitchen, larger gift shop and restrooms, plus rental space for horticultural groups. Targeted to earn a LEED gold rating, the new buildings feature Northwest materials, overhangs for shelter and a spacious courtyard. Huge, roll-up doors and plenty of windows will blur the line between indoors and out. The BBG's residential scale, so useful to visitors seeking ideas for their own outdoor spaces, will stay the same. As will all of the existing gardens.

What about new gardens? With the design team of Swift & Company joined by Dan Hinkley, I think we can anticipate innovation to match the architecture.

A hedge Hinkley saw years ago in Japan inspired the plan for a tapestry hedge composed of unclipped evergreen and deciduous shrubs. The refined hedgerow will outline a reconfigured entry plaza, turning it into an outdoor room. Expect to see unusual shrubs Hinkley considers underused in our gardens, such as Pernettya mucronata, with showy berries, and fragrant, white-flowering Itea virginica.

A water feature with a weeping wall will compete for attention with climbers like sausage vines (Holboellia spp.), vining hydrangeas and clematis.

"We want the garden experience to start the minute you get here," says project manager Lisa Corry of Swift & Company. To this end, the parking lot will be transformed into a winter garden where a variety of witch hazels will perfume the air January through March. A walkway will lead visitors through native woods to the new buildings and a storm-water-retention garden boggy enough to grow iris. Anyone who remembers Hinkley's Heronswood gardens won't be surprised to learn there'll be some giant gunnera involved.

Construction began in May and is expected to finish by autumn 2014. All of the gardens except for the entry and rill plaza will be open daily throughout the project. You can follow progress of the new buildings and gardens at www.bellevuebotanical.org.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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