Entrepreneur and playwright Duane Kelly grew as a gardener while cultivating the Northwest Flower & Garden Show over the past 20 years.

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Entrepreneur and playwright Duane Kelly grew as a gardener while cultivating the Northwest Flower & Garden Show over the past 20 years. “Before I started the show I gardened enthusiastically but without the constraint of knowledge,” says Kelly. “I was a gardener in the geranium-petunia-fuchsia mold.”

Not anymore.

All he learned from immersion in the gardening world here and in San Francisco couldn’t help but rub off on his Ballard garden. Kelly’s plant enthusiasms were honed by working with show designers and trips to England’s Chelsea Show, as well as worldwide travel to visit gardens. His list of top 10 plants is a sophisticated mix well-suited to an urban garden. Many of his selections push the climate envelope and reflect his admiration for Italian gardens:

Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia). A slow-growing tree with four-season interest, its spring leaves are followed by camellia-like summer flowers and vivid fall color. In winter, the trunk is a patchwork of exfoliating bark in shades of green, gray, umber, cream and rust. “Problem-free tree with bark that looks like the skin of wisdom — what more can you ask for?” opines Kelly, who planted his stewartia outside his library/study windows.

Dwarf English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’). Planted in crushed gravel, this boxwood lends a Mediterranean air to Kelly’s garden. “Inspired by Italian gardens and motivated by fatigue, I ripped out a labor-intensive perennial bed and replaced it with boxwood in a geometric pattern,” says Kelly. These eminently clippable evergreen shrubs require perfect drainage and prefer partial shade.

Acer palmatum ‘Karasu gawa.’ A treasure of a small Japanese maple, with variegated pink and white foliage. This is a small-scale tree ideal for pot culture, growing only 8 feet high and wide. Kelly grows it in his entry courtyard, where it gets shade and its graceful beauty can be enjoyed close up.

Olive tree (Olea europaea ‘Arbequina’). Compact and hardy, this tree hails from Spain’s higher elevations. “I grow it in a large pot on a west-facing terrace, and it’s going into its fifth winter,” says Kelly. Not only does the tree’s narrow, gray-green foliage add to the Italian aura of the garden, it even produces olives.

Gardenia jasminoides ‘Kleim’s Hardy.’ A variety that flowers all summer long, wafting its heavenly fragrance around the garden. Kelly keeps its dark-green foliage shiny and white flowers blooming with regular doses of fish fertilizer. “I was skeptical about this reputedly hardy gardenia when I bought it five years ago, but it’s still with me,” he says.

Primula vialii. A primrose with red and violet poker-shaped flowers that look more like a miniature kniphofia. It blooms May into June, and is most effective planted en masse. “I snagged five of these at the Arboretum Foundation’s plant sale one spring, and they never fail to attract ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ in my garden,” says Kelly. No wonder. This primula’s curious flowers are unlike any other in the genus.

Clematis texensis ‘Pagoda.’ One of those sweet-looking, long-blooming clematis beloved by gardeners. It earns its name because the petals on its bell-shaped flowers curve upward like the roof on a pagoda. Kelly grows these carefree clematis on an arborvitae hedge, where they stretch 8 to 10 feet and are covered by violet flowers July through September.

Snowdrops (Galanthus species) say, “Congratulations, you’ve endured another winter” to Kelly, who bought more than a hundred bulbs years ago. Now his garden is filled with the white nodding blossoms of snowdrops every January and February.

Thalictrum rochebrunianum ‘Lavender Mist.’ One of only two perennials on Kelly’s list, it earned its place with a haze of tiny violet flowers atop stems so tall they reach up into the branches of an old apple tree in Kelly’s garden.

Sago palms (Cycas revoluta). These flamboyant plants aren’t really palms, but cyads that have changed little since the days of the dinosaurs. While they’re hardy to 15 degrees, Kelly takes no chances, growing them in huge pots. “In mid-November I wrapped them in burlap the way I’ve seen done in Japanese gardens, he says, adding, “It’s an experiment” — proving that producing the garden show for two decades has turned him into a true hard-core gardener.

This year’s show runs Feb. 20-24 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.