Each plant we select sends us on a new journey of learning — how does it look and, more particularly, how does it grow? What's the soil doing for or against us? For me, the joy...

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Each plant we select sends us on a new journey of learning — how does it look and, more particularly, how does it grow? What’s the soil doing for or against us? For me, the joy of gardening connects intimately to learning, finding answers to questions or discovering new questions with each walk around the garden.

You’ve probably heard that the Pacific Northwest is cherished as one of the greatest spots — on Earth! — to garden. It’s also splendid for all of us who are learning about gardening.

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If you’re inclined to follow up a 2005 resolution to learn more, consider the community-college system. Ask a nursery-staff member or landscaper — or garden writer, like me — and you might find she’s taken classes there. Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Lake Washington Technical College and South Seattle Community College offer comprehensive programs in horticulture theory and technique.

For this last column of 2004, I’ve asked experienced instructors in these programs to answer the question, “If you could teach only two points, what would they be?” Since the three of them have taught thousands of students during the past 20 years, their answers intrigue, and don’t quite repeat each other. But their focus is similar — and, as you might guess, they concentrate on soil and plant behavior.

Walt Bubelis, of Edmonds Community College,

concentrated his advice into two three-word bits even smaller than a sound bite: “Know your soil.” “Know the plants.” But I know from experience that his “know the plants” advice translates into learning to identify plants.

Bubelis added, “Once you know the name of a plant, you can look it up, learn its season of beauty and more on how to grow it or propagate it.” For developing confidence, the rigors of plant identification provide great grounding. In all the horticulture programs, you can sign up for one class — or a few classes — at a time, and Plant ID is a fine place to begin. The landscape becomes populated by individual, recognizable plants instead of a puzzling green blur.

Don Marshall, of Lake Washington Technical College,

expressed his belief in learning from observation as well as formal classes: The best teacher? “Watch the plants. Let the plant be your teacher. Watch how it changes with seasons.” Gardening allows us to experience the rhythm of time and change.

More information

Lake Washington Technical College, Kirkland:


Edmonds Community College, Lynnwood:


South Seattle Community College:


Marshall’s second tip: “Spend your money on soil preparation and then buy a smaller plant.” Healthy roots on small plants rapidly propel them into growth. If reduced to three words — which wouldn’t ever happen with Marshall, he might say, “Soil, soil and soil.”

Time also influenced Van Bobbitt, of South Seattle Community College:

“Take the long view in almost anything you do in a landscape — how big will the plant grow? And what price will I pay if I don’t take time to install a plant properly?” He also suggests that we expect complexity. “Don’t necessarily look for easy, pat answers.”

Obviously, each of these tips could lead to months of study. But for those of us who love gardens, study’s a pleasure. And whether you consider one class, or several, or a full degree in professional horticulture, you’ll find help from the community-college system.

Because classes lead toward professional and technical competence, you’ll find them both challenging and informative. You can learn greenhouse propagation or pruning or landscape management, taking classes taught by landscape experts. Winter classes start Monday; you can check on class availability but might be best advised to look for spring-quarter classes.

Garden expert Mary Robson, retired area horticulture agent for Washington State University/King County Cooperative Extension, shares gardening tips every Wednesday. Her e-mail is marysophia@earthlink.net.