The Pacific Northwest has a high concentration of botanical gardens. Maybe it’s due to a culturally embedded fondness for nature. Or perhaps it’s because the environment is a perfect canvas for growing things; cozied up between two mountain ranges and never far from water, western Washingtonians have the benefit of being able to grow a wide variety of plants. No matter the reason, we are blessed with more than 20 public gardens around the Salish Sea alone.
In celebration of our small but mighty regional gardens, this article is part of a series featuring local gardens and conservatories.
My first stop is a plant paradise called PowellsWood: A Northwest Garden. While most folks merely pass through Federal Way on I-5, PowellsWood is worth a detour. The garden sits west of the highway, on the southernmost end of a multi-acre ravine and forest preserve. Visiting PowellsWood is a two-fer experience, as you can visit the cultivated beauty of the garden, then explore the wild, forested land to its north. There’s a well-trodden trail in the preserve that makes for a beautiful stroll. It's a 40-acre sanctuary amidst the suburban sprawl.
The location of PowellsWood is no accident. When owners Monte and Diane Powell found the property in the 90s, they saw potential for its proximity to undeveloped land. Still, like many spots in the area, their newly acquired parcel was riddled with garbage - concrete, junk cars, and trash. Visiting today, you’d never know that this land was so heavily damaged that there were areas where “even weeds would not grow.”
For almost three decades, this 3-acre garden has been lovingly tended by its owners and a small, but dedicated staff. Every inch of the garden is thoughtfully planted to not only create lush floral vignettes, but also with sustainability in mind. In the early years, PowellsWood was part of a mulch and soil rebuilding study with King County to help determine how best to remediate soil deterioration. The water features incorporate local runoff into the garden’s design. The overlook structure in the Woodland Garden is mostly constructed from recycled materials, like wood from an old pier. Like true Washingtonians, the Powells considered how to work with their environment rather than against it.
There’s a lot to love about PowellsWood, but I have to lead with its fantastic perennial displays. Perennials are plants that grow back every year. While spring is an iconic time to visit botanical gardens, summertime is an underappreciated season for blooms and lush foliage. PowellsWood capitalizes on the season with tiered, rainbow-colored perennial displays.
I caught up with friend and botanical garden colleague Justin Henderson, Executive Director and the dynamic face behind PowellsWood’s successful Instagram page. Justin is known for geeking out in the garden and taking idyllic photography. “I feel like a part of my soul has been reawakened through the garden. I go to sleep dreaming about the plants, the wildlife, and the terrain of the gardens.”
Henderson notes that his experience is representative of the owners’ original intent: creating a place of healing and restoration. It’s definitely easy to forget that you’re in a major metropolitan area when enjoying the secluded pond or strolling along the stream.
There are more than a thousand species of plants packed through its three acres, so there’s lots to explore! Below are just a few spots that I found especially serene this time of year.
The ground is carpeted with a glowing green moss beneath a copse of native trees. The openness of this area contrasts beautifully with the rest of the garden, which is densely planted. It’s also a place to really take note of and enjoy our native Douglas firs and hemlocks.
Named for its proximity to the Powells’ original home, this area is both a picnic spot and a stunning display of color. In summer, the plantings are a delightful mishmash of native plants and unusual perennials, like Cleome ‘Cherry Queen,’ stark white Senecio candicans ‘Angel Wings,’ and Musa basjoo, a hardy banana with strikingly tall leaves that lean over the beds.
Pond and Stream Area
Gently sloping down the landscape, a small stream feeds into a still pond. The garden looks naturalistic and wild here. One of the standout plants is Gunnera manicata, commonly known as Dinosaur Food, as this species looks - well - Jurassic. It’s grown for its remarkable foliage, with a single leaf stretching as wide as four feet in diameter.
About halfway through the garden loop, you’ll find a massive arbor structure that’s swallowed by flowering vines, providing a welcome spot to sit and take it all in.
I asked Justin what makes PowellsWood special and rather ironically (as I write this article to help spread the word), he said it’s the garden’s low profile. “PowellsWood is sort of a secret. Not many people are aware of it… and that is part of what makes it magical.” In a way, visiting does feel like a private experience. Each of its garden “rooms” envelopes you and creates the illusion that you’re in a private eden.
Planning a Visit:
The garden is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fall and winter have different hours, so be sure to check their website before heading to the garden.
Admission is $7 per adult and children 12 and under are free. As a non-profit organization, your admission fees directly support the maintenance and upkeep of the garden.
Facilities include two parking areas, restrooms, and a wheelchair accessible path.