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Originally published Friday, January 24, 2014 at 11:05 AM

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Iain Robertson shares his love of the natural world with students

The UW associate professor teaches his landscape-architecture students not only organizational structures but also about the diversity of the natural world around them.

Special to The Seattle Times

Northwest Gardening Greats

This is the first installment of an occasional series on local people who have changed our gardening world.

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IAIN ROBERTSON has infused generations of University of Washington landscape-architecture students with his love of the natural world and his eye for its underlying structures.

He sees gardening as a verb. “It’s about creating living systems. Gardens aren’t objects, a thing that you manage . . . The goal is to interact, to reduce our level of control, yet still enjoy our gardens.”

But then in typical, modest Robertson fashion, he laughs and adds, “Maybe this is just an excuse for my own backyard . . . that, and my daughter’s free-roaming chickens.”

Robertson is an associate professor at the UW, where he’s taught since 1982. He chaired the landscape architecture department for eight years, and sat on the Seattle Design Commission and the Seattle Parks Foundation Board for several years each.

In addition to teaching, he’s designed beloved public gardens, like the Witt Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum and the McVay Courtyard at the Center for Urban Horticulture. He was an early proponent of native plants, and seamlessly intermingles natives and ornamentals in the gardens he designs.

Soft-spoken, with a Scottish lilt to his voice (he was raised and went to college in Edinburgh), Robertson can be surprisingly provocative. Years ago, I was in a meeting where he tossed off the idea that “the only good cultivar is a dead cultivar.” I was impressed enough to think more about plants just as you find them in nature.

One of Robertson’s most recent big projects was a fresh planting plan for Freeway Park, completed a few years ago. His design remains true to the intent of original designer Lawrence Halprin to create a green oasis in the heart of the city. But the new plan emphasizes more compact plants with seasonal interest. “I think of Freeway Park as a city-scaled window box that will need to be replanted as the trees and shrubs outgrow the space,” says Robertson of the spruced up, safer downtown park.

After 32 years of teaching, Robertson stays engaged with new projects. Lately, he’s gone global, in three countries, teaching classes on how to be creative. He’s leading a group of students to New Zealand this winter. And he spent most of the last year on sabbatical, traveling to Kuala Lumpur and teaching in China and Norway. He taught his students the same interactive creativity exercises he’d invented for his UW honor students, and has written a book comparing how students in Seattle, Bergen and Wuhan responded.

Did he visit gardens on his travels? “The historic gardens in Suzhou gave me a new understanding of complexity,” he says. “The gardens are built layer upon layer, they’re three-dimensional stone mazes.”

Robertson describes his own city-lot-sized garden in North Seattle as “nothing to write home about.” A huge cedar shades the front, and for years he’s been experimenting with plants that might thrive in this Northwest forest environment. His latest introduction is the little flowering perennial Saxifraga x urbium ‘London Pride,’ a plant he grew up with in shady Scottish gardens.

“I think the purpose of a garden is to try and live appropriately in the place you’re in. I’m more interested in what pops up than in what I collect,” says Robertson. He teaches his landscape-architecture students not only organizational structures but also the diversity of the natural world around them. You can find, he marvels, “20 different plants growing in one weedy patch of lawn.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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