The Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit is already breathing fresh life into the Seattle Center.

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RICHARD HARTLAGE has been considering gardens at the base of the Space Needle for years. He was working with the owners of the Needle long before the idea of the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit came up. Which might be why the word garden precedes glass in the name of this exciting venue, already breathing fresh life into the Seattle Center.

The innovative landscape designed by Hartlage and Kristin Glandon of AHBL is sure to play a big role in the exhibit’s continuing appeal. We’ll go to see the glass, and we’ll return to check on the progress of the honeysuckle, akebia, grapes and clematis wrapped around two sides of the building. And to see what a bed of 600 purple-foliaged Aster ‘Prince’ looks like when it billows into full autumn bloom.

The new exhibit is the largest display of Chihuly glass in the world, and every piece was created specifically for the setting. Trees and shrubs serve as backdrop to the glistening artwork.

Hartlage choreographed foliage and flower color to echo Chihuly’s palette. One end of the garden features blue and white plants, like eryngium and lacecap hydrangeas, that morph to more warmly colored coreopsis, day lilies and fuchsias as the tones in the artwork heat up. And this autumn, 17,000 bulbs go into the ground to set the stage for an extravaganza of spring bloom.

“I hope people will come to the Center to see the dove trees bloom,” says Hartlage. Not many public landscapes are garnished with a grove of Davidia involucrata, a tree well worth a pilgrimage. In late May and early June, large, soft, white flowers hang from the trees’ branches to flutter in the breeze like snowy doves.

Thanks to the Needle’s owners, who financed the gardens and their maintenance, Hartlage was able to plant groves of Hinoki cypress, magnolias, coral bark maple, dogwood, stewartia and honey locust. And the trees went in large enough to lend scale to Chihuly’s glass apparitions on the day the exhibit opened.

Then there’s the 6-foot-high mound of black mondo grass topped by a multicolored Chihuly sun. Hartlage stockpiled 4,300 of the slow-to-propagate grasses more than a year ahead to make sure he had enough to coat the mound of soil in spidery black foliage for opening day.

The inspired collaboration between all the parties involved adds to the excitement. The orange-brown bark of Hinoki cypresses complement the slim, rusty wands of fencing designed by architect Owen Richards and the Chihuly Studio. The nine-room gallery building is topped with green roofs holding sufficient soil to grow larger plants like rosemary, cotoneaster and Russian sage that can be viewed from the Space Needle above.

A glass-canopied walkway shelters visitors strolling the north/south route through the grounds. Hartlage designed terraces, promenades and plantings on all sides of the ¾-acre campus for everyone to enjoy, whether they pay to go into the exhibit or not. Then there’s the drop-dead-gorgeous glasshouse. Its contemporary design (also by Richards) dramatically frames the city and the Center, if you can tear your eyes off the hot-colored glass flowers hanging inside.

Might these gardens become our city’s vibrant outdoor living room? I can’t wait to hang out in the café, with its mod-patterned banquettes, or drink a cappuccino on the elm-shaded outdoor terrace, an ideal spot to watch the gardens budding and blooming around Chihuly’s fantastical glass.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.