Seattle garden shop Ravenna Gardens created this display titled ‘Urban Nest’

I had a fleeting but action-packed trip North to the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle on Thursday. We headed up before dawn and returned after midnight – a non-stop, 18-hour fiesta of total plant immersion. The show runs through Sunday evening so there’s still time to go if you’re inclined. The end of the final day of the show is actually a good time for bargains, as some vendors sell off their display plants at great prices.

My companions and I downed coffee at the nearby Bauhaus Cafe before hurrying back to the Convention Center for an 11:30 am talk by SF Bay Area landscape architect Andrea Cochran. Her gardens are sleek exemplars of modern design, characterized by large swathes of single species of ornamental grasses, shrubs or trees. Rectilinear lines, sweeps of plants (mostly shrubs and grasses or groups of diaphanous white Japanese anemone) and expanses of gravel or stone create planes against which a single shapely tree – often native evergreen oak – can shine. Her images were amazing; I was particularly smitten with her use of large Shoji-like screens that permit light through while blocking a view.

Next up, at 1 pm, was a talk by Fergus Garrett, head gardener at the renowned, very quirky and in some ways "un-English" English garden Great Dixter. I’d visited Great Dixter many years ago and have since often read Garrett’s garden articles in English gardening magazines. To my dismay, the tickets were gone two hours before his talk. We decided to wait at the door, in case there was standing room and – as luck would have it – there was. His talk focused on the ongoing, fruitful editing process that takes place when one maintains a garden over the years – and how valuable it is to rework plantings over time. "Editing is very important – that’s how gardens move ahead and improve," he noted. Good advice in an era of TV garden make-over shows and insta- garden designs. He is a firm advocate of the idea of "Right Plant, Right Place" – in other words, it’s important to know what your plants need and position them correctly so that they are "not just happy but impressive". In his words: "you must understand your plants and be creative".

I liked how he explained his priorities when working new plants into the existing design at Great Dixter:

*Rule #1: Make sure plant is happy.
*Rule #2: Consider shape: contrasting forms of plants foliage and flower heads
*Rule #3: Consider flower/plant color.

It’s all too easy to do it in reverse order, though, prioritizing the look of the plants – particularly flower color – and considering the plants’ needs last. But as he tried to underscore, to avoid disappointment, we must not ignore "basic ecological rules" (ie, Right Plant, Right Place!)!

Garrett’s talk was funny and charming and the images were inspiring, with examples of both successful and unsuccessful plant combinations. It takes considerable gumption to show combinations that don’t work (particularly from your own design files) and I love that he did it.

By the time we got out of two seminars, we had to be extremely efficient to take in as much of the Show as possible in the time we had left. We speed-walked through the display gardens – most of which used far less bark dust than in days of yore and were, in fact, quite creative (click on the slide show for some photographic highlights). Next, the sales areas with suppliers of garden tools, garden art, some plant-themed clothing and jewelry, and – my favorite – plants. There were tons of summer bulb vendors and – a new thing – many vendors sold dormant perennial plants in bags rather than growing plants in pots.

Because the Yard, Garden & Patio Show is coming up next weekend in Portland (Friday Feb 12 to Sun Feb 14), I was restrained. All I bought were three gorgeous air plants (Tillandsia sp.) from Owens Nursery to grow in my bathroom and also a gorgeous little blackish-burgundy hardy garden bromeliad Dyckia (seedling from Burgundy Ice). That was enough to whet my appetite!