Originally published January 13, 2017 | Updated January 12, 2018

Trudging along in the biting cold and blustery winds of winter, it’s hard not to yearn for longer spring days when the first early flowers begin to bloom. Instead of counting down the days until spring’s official start, you can get a quick spring fix by visiting Seattle’s acclaimed Northwest Flower and Garden Festival from February 7 to 11. The perfect trifecta for PNW gardeners, this show boasts thousands of fabulous new and traditional heirloom plants, superlative visuals in the display gardens as well as an array of incredible seminars.

If you’re a foodie, you’ll love sinking your teeth into cheese, jellies, chocolates, honey and specialty meats created by local artisans at the Festival’s Tasting Corner. Avid home gardeners looking for the perfect find for their yard will delight in exploring the cornucopia of more than 350 exhibitors in the festival’s Marketplace. Bonus points for checking out the new-to-the-show Floral Wars where top professional florists go head-to-head as they compete to create a bridal bouquet, floral centerpiece and a surprise creation all in an hour or less.

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We recently went behind the scenes to gain a better appreciation of what it takes to put on this spectacular show. Planting a 500 to 1,000 square foot garden may not sound like a challenging task. All you need is a shovel, the proper soil and fertilizer, hardy plants, beautiful flowers and maybe some comfortable gardening gloves to protect your ten precious digits, and you’re set, right?? Well, not exactly.

Factor in that the gardens are created from scratch in a mere three days (and must stay fresh for five). Built on the stark, concrete-covered floor of the Washington Convention Center, the displays must thrive sans any help from Mother Nature by way of warm sunny rays or crisp spring breezes. Oh, and let’s not forget that the month of February isn’t exactly peak blooming season for most plants and flowers.

A secluded patio provides a cozy escape among stunning blooms. Photo: Northwest Flower & Garden Show
A secluded patio provides a cozy escape among stunning blooms. Photo: Northwest Flower & Garden Festival

The reality is that this is perhaps one of the most difficult gardening jobs around. Yet, each year a robust lineup of renowned landscape designers jump at the chance to test their horticultural chops. The result? At least twenty, big, blooming display gardens that cover a full acre of the show grounds and have been known to make jaws drop and inspire more than a few “ahhhs.”

Each display is striking in its own unique way. Bursting with a sweet fragrance, one garden is reminiscent of stepping into a field of tulips, hyacinths and narcissus as they emerge from winter’s sleep. Meanwhile, the display around the corner transports you to a lush mountainside, complete with a cascading waterfall and bubbling stream.

Craggy boulders offer a rustic vibe in a flower-filled woodland display. Photo: Northwest Flower & Garden Show
Craggy boulders offer a rustic vibe in a flower-filled woodland display. Photo: Northwest Flower & Garden Festival

While the end result is mesmerizing, the hard work begins the Saturday before the show when the gardeners move in and lay the foundation for the displays. It all starts with sawdust. Next up are the stones, boulders, retaining walls and garden props. Soon after, mulch, plants and flowers are layered into the mix. Flower & Garden Festival designer, Lloyd Glasscock remarks:

Last year I think we used 20,000 individual bulb flowers to produce the displays, and then we also had all the forced perennials and shrubs. Each garden probably has a minimum of 40 different types of plants and there are 20 gardens or so, so there are at least 800 varieties of flowers.

The true magic happens when the gardeners begin to weave in their own unique plantings and other design elements to fit with the show’s theme, which is the last piece of the garden designing puzzle. This year’s theme is “Garden Party,” to celebrate both the festival’s 30th anniversary and important events in the lives of the garden designers. Keep an eye out for the show’s own display garden, a gigantic anniversary “cake” made from a number of plants and flowers.

The process of bringing the theme to life in each garden is a combination of perspiration and good old-fashioned creativity. According to Glasscock:

Inspiration is the key. When I was creating the Show Theme Garden last year, I looked into my own garden and saw an array of early blooming plants, all yellow. I asked myself, ‘how can I make that fit the theme Taste of Spring?’ I came up with butter, which after adding herbs to the design became ‘Herbed Butter.’

As you navigate through the show, Glasscock recommends stopping at a few must-see displays. He says, “Susan Browne Landscape Design/Fancy Plants Gardens always does something that showcases the theme and the theatrical aspects of the show. I always enjoy seeing them bring it together.” Glasscock continues, “Rich Landscaping and Jefferson Landscaping will do something elegant and creative. Meanwhile, Susan Calhoun at Plantswoman Design brings a terrific sense of fun to her displays along with a sophisticated plant palette.”

Freshly poured drinks invite you to pull up a stool in the garden an in this outdoor cocktail bar. Photo: Northwest Flower & Garden Show
Freshly poured drinks invite you to pull up a stool in the garden an in this outdoor cocktail bar. Photo: Northwest Flower & Garden Festival

If the gardens leave you dreaming of creating a lush masterpiece of your own, they don’t have to just be pipe dreams. A stellar roster of talented and knowledgeable speakers host more than 100 different free seminars that allow you to dig into new and fun ways to make your garden grow.

Don’t miss talks by show favorite and self-described plant geek Nicholas Staddon. Learn about the latest and greatest plants to introduce into your yard during Wednesday’s “Making Their Debut: Best New Plants for Northwest Gardens” or discover what new “treasures” you simply must take home from the show at Saturday’s “Shop with a Pro: Nick’s Plant Picks from the Garden Show Plant Market.” Also worth adding to your must-do list is Saturday’s talk, “Life Lessons: What 30 Years of Gardening Have Taught Me” from the beloved and hilarious radio and TV host, Seattle Times columnist & gardening celebrity, Ciscoe Morris.

This spectacular patio makes us dream of garden party season. Photo: Northwest Flower & Garden Festival
This spectacular patio makes us dream of garden party season. Photo: Northwest Flower & Garden Festival

After a day spent among thousands of eye-popping blooms, you’ll leave the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival with a head full of inspiration and fingers itching to get into the soil. Go home, roll up your shirtsleeves and let the fun begin!

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