Maintaining an urban refuge in the Pacific Northwest

Just east of Seattle, in the bustling city of Bellevue, is the Bellevue Botanical Garden. Here, just a few minutes’ drive from high-rise office buildings and the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the 405 freeway, wild deer roam, brooks babble and flowers bloom. Set on 53 acres, the Bellevue Botanical Garden is officially a city-owned park, but really it’s an oasis, an urban refuge in the Pacific Northwest.

Rick Huggins uses a 72-inch Toro riding mower to mow perennial ryegrass on The Great Lawn at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

The Bellevue Botanical Garden is open 365 days a year, and because it’s a part of Wilburton Hill public park, admission is free. Erik Sigurdson is a city employee and the crew leader charged with overseeing the maintenance of the garden. Including Sigurdson, the entire garden is maintained by a three-person, full-time crew, supplemented by one part-time worker and a summer intern. The staff works on a staggered start schedule so that a crewmember is always on-hand while the visitor center is open, which is daily until 4 p.m. Crewmember Rick Huggins comes in at 6 a.m., Sigurdson at 6:30 a.m. and Christine Cooley, another crewmember, arrives at 7:30 a.m. In general, the part-time employees work the weekends.

Still, with just three full-time staff to maintain 53-acres – 2 acres of which are managed turf, 15 acres are manicured gardens and 36 acres are native forest and woodlands – that’s a lot of ground to cover.

To make up the difference, says Garden Manager Nancy Kartes, hundreds of volunteers donate some 20,000 volunteer hours each year to maintain and operate the garden. Locally based companies like Expedia, Starbucks and Nordstrom lend staff to help the garden stay in pristine shape, while also helping the companies fulfill their corporate mission of community service. In addition, the garden partners with eight different associations, such as the Bellevue Botanical Garden Society, Bellevue Utilities and the Eastside Fuchsia Society, to work on specialty gardens and lend support.

Sigurdson, who has a horticulture degree from Lake Washington Technical College in nearby Kirkland, says a good part of his job focuses on educating volunteers who work in the garden.

“You need to keep an open mind and essentially be a teacher because that’s what a lot of these folks come here for is to learn horticulture. Sometimes you have volunteers who show up once and you never see them again. Other times we try to build a relationship with them, and to continue them coming week after and week, and it gets to the point where, on certain things, we can turn them loose,” Sigurdson says. “This morning our staff is busy having to mow, and Rick’s got one of his really dedicated volunteers coming in and she’s pretty self-sufficient. He’ll say, ‘Hey, head over to this area and weed or prune this.’ The more they come, the more comfortable we get with them and their skills, and what we’ve taught them, and they can implement. It works well, versus new folks, then you’re there holding hands a little bit until you develop that trust that they’re not going to pull out the wrong plant, that kind of thing.”

The Belleuve Botanical Garden and all of Wilburton Hill Park began with the vision of Cal and Harriet Shorts, who donated their home and 7.5 acres of land to begin the park. Soon their neighbors lobbied to make part of the park into a botanical garden. Other residential homes were donated or purchased and now serve as park staff office space. Over the past two decades, the city purchased the land in increments to reach the full 53 there now.

Erik Sigurdson shows damage done by deer to Bergenia plants at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

There are about 2 acres of maintained turf in the garden. The parking lot and building surrounds are grassed in Poa annua, but the lush green centerpiece of the garden is called The Great Lawn, a roughly 1-acre parcel grassed with a perennial ryegrass mix. Located behind the original Shorts house, which was converted into the present-day visitor’s center, The Great Lawn serves as a headquarters for events, fundraisers and as the main visual entry point to the rest the garden.

Sigurdson says the ryegrass is maintained at a mowing height of 2.5 inches. The Great Lawn is mowed twice a week, weather permitting. This past winter and spring were among the wettest on record in western Washington, Sigurdson says, so keeping to that schedule was a challenge.

The turf is fertilized with a 22-0-10 fertilizer mix with 6 percent iron in three to four fertilization apps per year. Sigurdson says the city of Bellevue has a “no phosphorous policy” in its city parks “for water quality issues,” as Bellevue has numerous lakes and waterways that eventually empty out into the Puget Sound.

Each autumn, The Great Lawn turf is renovated. The crew completes a dethatching, aeration and overseeding using city-owned equipment that is sent to the park for this purpose once a year. Mowers at the garden are Toro, maintenance vehicles are John Deere and all small equipment is manufactured by Stihl. In the turf, one to two apps are made each year using Chaser for broadleaf weeds.

Between 250,000 and 300,000 visitors tour the garden each year. This kind of foot traffic, Sigurdson says, requires that the use of chemicals be as lean and nontoxic as possible. Therefore, integrated pest management protocols are in place in the garden. For example, 80 percent of all weeding in the ornamental beds in the garden is done by hand, which could not be accomplished without the volunteer labor.

One of the biggest challenges comes from the family of wild deer that migrated from other local greenbelts and made the park their home. Damage caused by the deer nibbling on plants can render an ornamental bed of fresh green Bergenia down to mere nubs. The deer love roses and lilies, too. In the fall, male deer rub their antlers on trees in a show of their prowess. Sigurdson says it’s not uncommon to find extensive bark peeling that could kill a tree.

“It’s frustrating. People come here to see healthy plants in the garden,” Sigurdson says. Options for evasive action, other than roping off areas or putting protective cages around young trees, are limited. “They’re the state’s deer. There’s really nothing we can do,” he says.

Erik Sigurdson looks at damage caused by a fungus on an acer palmatum tree at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

This past spring, according to local television news station KIRO-7 and the National Weather Service, the Seattle area endured the coldest April on record, going back 120 years. Because of the extreme weather pattern, by May the garden was about a month behind in its bloom. The persistent cold and dampness also contributed to an outbreak of vertcillium wilt fungus on acer palmatum trees in the garden, which caused the bark to crack. Sigurdson says his methodology to deal with the fungus was mainly “to prune or cut it out and let it recover.”

Protective cages are used to keep deer away from young trees at the Bellevue Botanical Garden.

Maintaining a public botanical garden, Sigurdson says, requires a lot of interaction with visitors. His job requires not only horticultural knowledge, but a willingness to be welcoming and friendly.

“It’s almost like a retail setting, as if you were working at a garden center or nursery, you kind of have to have that frame of mind. Working here isn’t for everybody because there tends to be a lot of hand-holding,” Sigurdson says. “Sometimes in the spring and summer when the place is packed, there are lots of questions. It’s our job to stop what we’re doing and say, ‘Here, let’s go find out,’ and come back to the visitor’s center to use the plant database. Or maybe you know the plant, that saves time. You get to really know the ones people ask about, but you’re never going to know every plant in the garden. That’s part of it, assisting people.”

The author is a freelance writer and photographer based in Burlington, Wash.