The Whispering Season

Carkeek Park demonstration garden photo courtesy of Terri Johnson, owner of Plumb Pixel Photography

Written by Deborah Phare, Carkeek Park Steward

Between the closed-fist grip of deep winter and the gentle touch of early spring resides another, much shorter, season. Gardeners are familiar with this brief time of year and respond to its arrival with hope and joy. Its duration is brief – sometimes just three weeks – but its days are filled with the soft green shoots and emerging buds of early perennials and shrubs poking through a mist of soft fog or the crumble-top layer of tired mulch.

In the demonstration gardens at Carkeek Park, few plants are in bloom during this time of year but the gardens’ gifts are on full display. The garden has a large selection of Hellebores and Heucheras, as do most gardens, but above and beyond those important plants there is a full palette of subtle colors and interesting shapes best seen during this short season.

The small, bright yellow buds of Mahonia aquifolium sparkle against shiny, deep green leaves.  When planted in mass, Oregon Grape is a shot of sunlight on a dark winter day. Lucky visitors find delight in the nascent, cheery white pedals of Hepatica acutiloba nestled in our shady woodland bed. Trillium ovatum, Coast or Pacific Trillium, shows the beginnings of a flower tucked inside its protective leaf-coat. Most of the trillium flowers are white, although there are a few deep maroon blooms.

The tiny, round pink buds of Kalmiopsis leachiana “Umpqua Form” compliment the round, compact form of the plant. Some visitors who bend down to inspect this tidy little plant at close range are impressed by the many buds they see, and make a note to return in spring to see the plant in full bloom. They are never disappointed.

Viburnum tinus, Spring Bouquet, offers two rewards for close inspection – shimmering blue berries and small pink buds. Even before the flowers open and their fragrance warms an early spring garden, the berries and buds offer a bright reprieve from the deep gray of winter.

White-flowering Ribes sanguineum buds are beginning to open and create a delicate, cascading presence against the plants’ dark stems.

Carkeek Park demonstration garden photo courtesy of Terri Johnson, owner of Plumb Pixel Photography

Foliage and stem color are on full display during this short time period. Mahonia repens shows its deepest purple, red and maroon in these weeks between winter and spring. It is a rare plant in the Pacific Northwest that sports such dramatic winter color. This Mahonia is especially beautiful when its leaves are dusted with the glitter of frost or dew. Intriguing and confusing to some visitors are the fertile, dark brown fronds of Matteuccia struthiopteris, Ostrich Fern.  Visitors could see these fronds and mutter that the gardener is pretty lax in clean-up. But when the fiddle-heads begin to show through the snow or mulch, it’s obvious that there is a reason these brown fronds remain on the plant.

Leucothoë fontanesiana responds to winter with highlighted reds and greens, and a more pronounced white. Against a background of fog, its spectacular show causes many visitors to steal a moment from their jogging or conversations to stop and appreciate the display.

Seed-heads of perennials that have retired for winter persist with architectural interest and unique beauty. Eutrochium purpureum, common Joe Pye Weed, and Achillea millifolium,yarrow, create a strong vertical presence in a horizontal landscape.

Especially attractive during this season is the combined impact of deep red stems and lustrous green leaves of Vaccinium ovatum, Evergreen Huckleberry. This important plant is used in many beds in the Carkeek gardens and makes an exceptionally attractive addition to each bed.  Gardeners would be hard-pressed to find a family of plants as versatile and hardy for this area.

A contrast among dark colors during this time of year are plants that offer a glimpse of white.  Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian Sage, displays dusty white/gray stems and an amusing presence as it serpentines its way through the structure of more vertical, traditional plants. As these stems wind through the foliage of evergreen plants they offer the visitor a sharp delineation in color, texture and movement – a welcomed sight throughout the many garden beds of Carkeek. Another plant that brings interest through winter is the native snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus. Birds will often eat the berries. The persistent white berries are a bright sight in the dark of winter.

Last, and always a pleasure to see, is the small beauty of Lewisia cotyledon when its leaves are outlined with frost. This plant’s symmetry is best highlighted when its deciduous neighbors are down for the season, the ground has a thin, sparkling cover of frost and the plant can be seen without its flowers.

It is during this brief time of year that the garden and its inhabitants share with us its most elusive gifts; gentle beauty, delicate color, unique form, and subtle promise.  These quiet gifts, whispered to the person patient enough to listen, are on full display in the Demonstration Gardens of Carkeek Park.

And they are waiting just for you.

Friends of Piper’s Orchard host ninth annual Festival of Fruit

The Friends of Piper’s Orchard invite the community to join them in celebrating Carkeek Park’s historic orchard from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 19. Events will include cider pressing and tasting, live music, an apple pie contest, activities for kids, guided tours of the historic orchard and more.

The event takes place at and around the Nancy Malmgren Environmental Center, 950 NW Carkeek Park Road. Visitors are encouraged to park below the learning center. Volunteers will be directing guests.

This event is free and open to the public. Activities will include:

  • Informational presentations: Presentations on historic orchards and fruit varieties featuring Sam Benowitz (Raintree Nursery) and Adam Wargacki.
  • Apple pie contest: Back by popular demand – bring a contest entry by 9:30 a.m. and buy a piece of contest pie after the winners are announced.
  • Apple identification: Bring apples from your home orchard for variety identification.
  • Fresh pressed cider: Visitors are encouraged to try out making cider the old-fashioned way, with a fresh cider press.
  • Homemade pie: Visitors are welcome to donate homemade pies. Fresh warm cider and slices of pie will be available for a nominal cost, with proceeds to support ongoing maintenance of the orchard.
  • Live music: Talented musicians will provide live music during the festival.
  • Orchard tours: Expert volunteers who have painstakingly restored the orchard will lead tours, pointing out the heirloom varieties that are going strong as well as younger trees and newly planted grape vines.
  • Apple tasting: Visitors will have the chance to taste heirloom apple varieties that are grown in the orchard.
  • Kids’ crafts: Little ones will enjoy organized arts and crafts activities.
  • Wildlife habitat demonstration garden tour: Following presentations and the apple pie contest, a tour of the gardens near the Environmental Learning Center will be offered.

For more information, please call 206-784-0877 or visit

The Friends of Piper’s Orchard is a group of dedicated volunteers who rediscovered and then rescued the historic North Seattle orchard from invasive plants. The annual Festival of Fruit raises awareness and funds to help the volunteers support the orchard, originally planted in the 1890s.

The Festival is sponsored by Friends of Piper’s Orchard, Seattle Parks and Recreation, Carkeek Park Advisory Council, Seattle Tree Fruit Society and City Fruit.


Seattle author turns orchard into poetry

“HEIRLOOM” art installation project in Piper’s Orchard, photo by Shin Yu Pai

Stenciled apple in Piper’s Orchard, photo by Thendara Kida-Gee

You’ve probably spread a blanket out beneath a tree to read, but you’ve probably never read a tree.

This summer, author and artist Shin Yu Pai stenciled words onto hundreds of apples in Carkeek Park’s Piper’s Orchard. Shin Yu encountered the orchard numerous times on her hikes down to the beach and thought it would make an interesting location for public art. She took a tour of the orchard with a resident apple expert with her 10-month-old son in tow, and said she was inspired by his reaction to the trees.

Installing stencils on apples in Piper’s Orchard, photo by Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu wrote a 26-section poem titled “HEIRLOOM” that captures the things she wishes she could tell her son about the land and the trees and serves as a guide to orchard visitors. She took words from the poem and created stencils to cover the apples with at the beginning of the season. As the apples ripened in the sun, the stencil words remained green.

Shin Yu has faced challenges with her project, such as heavy rain storms, picking and rot, but said she enjoys seeing the new developments in the orchard.

“I invite the public to collaborate with me and help with being apple stewards,” Shin Yu said. “Visit the orchard often and take pictures of the daily changes. Save the stenciled apples that fall from the trees and remove their stencils. Take pics and email them to me at”

Shin Yu will be leading guided tours of her installation at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29. For more information on her project, and to hear a reading of “HEIRLOOM,” visit

“HEIRLOOM” is part of the outdoor exhibition Propagation: Heaven and Earth 7. The project was supported, in part, by an award from 4Culture, funding from Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, and The Awesome Foundation.


SHIN YU PAI is the author of several poetry collections, including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings (1913 Press, 2007), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). She has exhibited her visual work and collaborations at The Three Arts Club of Chicago, McKinney Avenue Contemporary, International Print Center, Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College, 516 Arts, The Ferguson Gallery at The University of Alabama, The American Jazz Museum, Harvard University, and the University of Texas at Dallas. Her work has been commissioned twice by the Dallas Museum of Art. For more information, visit


Saving Place: Restoring the Demonstration Gardens at Carkeek Park

Written by Deborah Phare, Seattle Parks and Recreation Volunteer

Graceful stems of old-fashioned Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) in the Prairie Garden. Photo by Lorene Edwards Forkner

Public demonstration gardens begin with idealism, hope, and the best of intentions. In the mid-1990s, a small but ambitious project was undertaken in Carkeek Park, a 216-acre public park in north Seattle. With the help of many volunteers, a few Parks and Recreation department employees, and funding from two generous grants, gardens beds were installed adjacent to a meadow in a large open area behind the park’s administration buildings. The goal was to show the diversity of plants that could easily and successfully be grown in the Pacific Northwest without the use of fertilizers, insecticides, or pesticides, and with little-to-no supplemental water. Each bed focused on different soil and growing conditions that challenge gardeners in our region. Eights beds demonstrated a variety of plantings including a kitchen garden, woodland shade, a rain garden, a blue garden, and various plantings for pollinators and of Western natives.

But maintaining a garden requires attention and resources. And, as often happens with projects fueled primarily by volunteer effort, over time the demonstration gardens suffered from want of care and, eventually, neglect. Occasionally, staff would prune large shrubs and small trees to clear pathways, but no weeding was done. The garden beds became overgrown and many plants died. 

The first time I saw the gardens, in late summer 2009, I was greeted by a weedy tangle of creeping buttercup, bindweed, Geranium robertianum, Daphne laureola, English ivy, creeping woodsorrel, and a small stand of noxious knotweed just for variety. An enormous hop vine covered half of one bed and Spiraea douglasii covered the other half. Another bed was completely overgrown by a thicket of baldhip rose (Rosa gymnocarpa). I was intrigued by the once ample wealth of plant material as evidenced by labels for plants long since shaded out, and challenged by the enthusiastic health of weeds. If nothing else, it spoke well of the soil.

With the intention of offering to help, I asked the park’s naturalist who was in charge of maintenance. I was told that limited staff tended the gardens only as time allowed, but if I was interested, please speak up! So, with input from the naturalist, I committed to a few days each month to weed and do small pruning jobs. Slowly I began to uncover a few valuable plants, long hidden but still healthy, and struggling to grow. Among the surprises were Lewisia tweedyi, Hebe andersonii, yellow-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium californicum), Starflower (Trientalis borealis), Penstemon barrettiae, and a struggling Carpenteria californica suffocating under the hops.

The just-emerging Prairie Garden in spring backed by grasses and wildflowers in the lush meadow. Photo by Lorene Edwards Forkner

Within my first year of volunteering, city budget cuts reduced staff to just one employee who was responsible for the beach, a playground, picnic areas, and many miles of forested trails. Necessity dictated that garden maintenance be dropped. The thought of losing the gardens was intolerable, so after much thought I contacted the Parks department and asked to be assigned as garden steward. A written agreement was developed that entailed a three-year commitment, a weekly work schedule, and defined parameters. I began by developing a restoration plan that included plant requests, requests for additional help, outreach to the Edmonds Community College Horticulture department, and long-term goals for the landscape. A few months after signing the agreement, Drexie Malone, a Master Gardener, joined me in this work. Between the two of us, and with the help of occasional summer interns and volunteers, the demonstration gardens at Carkeek Park are developing into a vibrant, healthy landscape with a wide variety of Pacific Northwest native and non-native but harmonious plants.

In May 2013, I was given permission to add a new garden bed to the group—a prairie-style planting that would introduce a variety of ornamental grasses and perennials to the landscape. Ornamental grasses are the bones of this garden and the tall, elegant Sorghastrum nutans ‘Indian Steel’ is its star. The prairie-style garden is at its most beautiful in autumn when the grasses come into color. An important feature of this new area is that it requires the least amount of care of all the demonstration beds; the new plantings were watered through summer of 2013 but have received no supplemental water since and plants are thriving in this full sun, rich soil environment.

After removing enormous numbers of dead plants over the past three years (and a disturbing amount of garbage), gaps in coverage enabled weeds to repopulate the demonstration beds with astounding speed. We are alleviating the problem by adding more plants and deep layers of mulch.

As the variety of plant material increases, so follows our pollinator population. Tiger swallowtail, painted lady, red admiral, spangled fritillary, and mourning cloak butterflies are regularly seen on blooms throughout spring and summer. An occasional woodland skipper makes a trip through the gardens, as well. The population and variety of bees increases yearly and now includes mason bees as well as other native species. Our resident hummingbird population is growing and we hear them when our work intrudes into their territory! And Cooper’s hawks and bald eagles frequently soar above us in the morning as we work near the meadow.

Working in the demonstration gardens presents many challenges: repairing dog-damaged plants, reversing the peculiar work of a guerrilla gardener, the never-ending search for a budget for plants and materials, and recruiting volunteers and interns. But these issues aside, I’m always discovering something new and delightful about our plants, the wildlife, and interactions between them. It is gratifying to hear visitors to the gardens express appreciation and interest with questions that range from “What is that plant?” to “I have a black thumb; what can I plant that will live in spite of my efforts?” and “Should I try to grow this at home?”

Sweet Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum syn. Eupatorium purpureum) is a pollinator and butterfly favorite when it blooms in summer. Photo by Luke McGuff

Along the way, our project has been the fortunate recipient of expert help and guidance, from plant identification and donations, to the building of new beds, and yearly pruning. Walt Bubelis, Professor Emeritus, and Gene Pennock, landscaping and pruning instructor, from Edmonds Community College, have played important roles in the restoration of the demonstration gardens. The gardens would not be at this level of development without their help, and Drexie and I are very grateful.

The demonstration gardens at Carkeek Park are one of Seattle’s little-known but important horticultural gems. As the plantings develop and mature, their importance to the surrounding forest, creek, and neighborhood environments grows in countless ways. Visitors can gather planting and design ideas for their personal landscapes, glean valuable information about increasing pollinator populations and wildlife habitat, and develop a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the importance of the beneficial plants that support these systems. And they can leave refreshed and renewed from a pleasant walk in a quiet garden.


This story first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Pacific Horticulture magazine.

Environmental learning center to be named after longtime volunteer

Join Seattle Parks and Recreation at noon on Saturday, May 2, as the department names the new Carkeek Park environmental learning center in honor of Nancy Malmgren, a dedicated park volunteer. The event will take place at the center at 950 NW Carkeek Park Rd.

Nancy Malmgren first visited Carkeek Park in northwest Seattle in 1945 at the age of 16, and she’s maintained a strong connection to the park ever since. Ms. Malmgren’s daughter attended Carkeek Park’s annual Girl Scout Day Camp for six years and Nancy led different scout groups on expeditions throughout the park. In 1965, she began making restoration improvements to the area.

Ms. Malmgren has spent the last 40-plus years restoring Carkeek Park and the Piper’s Creek watershed. After securing funding from the Clean Water Act in 1979, Nancy and her husband Les started the Carkeek Watershed Community Action Project in partnership with Ted Mohldendorph. The watershed group organized educational, habitat restoration and outreach activities in the area and the Malmgrens often spent full work weeks reinforcing stream channels and creating sustainable paths for salmon. By the late 1980s, the couple’s efforts were repaid when hundreds of chum salmon returned to the stream.

Ms. Malmgren has received an Environmental Excellence Award and Denny Award from Seattle Parks and Recreation along with recognition from the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Washington State Ecological Commission.

Due to Ms. Malmgren’s strong commitment to hands-on education to take care of Carkeek’s watershed and natural environments and her commitment to preservation and sustainability, Seattle Parks will name the new environmental learning center the Nancy Malmgren Environmental Center.

The event will be part of the larger Pioneer and Garden Celebration hosted by the Carkeek Watershed Community Action Project from 10:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

Please RSVP to Cheryl Eastberg at or 206-386-4381.