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DO DISPLAY gardens teach us anything about how to make real gardens? They exist, after all, for less than a week, in the winter, inside the Washington State Convention Center, with all that means about artificial light and forced plants. How much realism can you expect?

The big winner at this year’s Northwest Flower & Garden Show didn’t feel like a stage set. Which may be why it took home all the honors. Show-goers, as well as the judges, responded to the garden, circling it again and again, looking closely, asking questions.

The garden masterfully drew you in because it was a story as much as plants and hardscape. An open book rested on a big, flat rock alongside a pond, giving the impression that the reader had just stepped away for a moment. You could easily imagine yourself settling in there, or perhaps sitting at the nearby desk invitingly strewn with papers and pencils. “Nature’s Studio,” the first-ever collaboration between the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Association and Washington Association of Landscape Professionals, won Best in Show and the People’s Choice Awards, as well as five more top honors.

“It was hugely collaborative,” says designer Kirsten Lints of Gardens Alive Design, who led the project. She worked closely with Rob Boyker of Avid Landscape Design & Development, who installed the garden. A great many people contributed time, art, plants and expertise. Lints met monthly with students from the environmental-horticulture program at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology. It was the students who, early in the process, wrote a story about the garden that remained the core concept. “The story helped get everyone’s mind around the spirit of the garden,” says Lints. “We invited people to bring their own imaginations to the space.”

But how did all this collaboration result in a garden dramatic enough to win big, yet realistic enough to engage viewers so thoroughly? “We pushed the scale on the art, we amped it up,” says Lints of the enormous urns and the huge circle of rusted metal moongate. Yet at the same time, the garden was all about the details. Lighting varied, so some areas appeared meant for sociability, others for repose. Bright lights made the running stream sparkle, the metal edging added a contemporary feel, and the “field” of asparagus spears bursting up out of the soil felt almost primeval.

Lints emphasized inviting, soft textures such as hemlocks and ferns to draw people in. Unusual foliage plants like the dwarf Leucothoe axillaris ‘Curly Red’ were repeated throughout to draw the eye all around the garden. The stone staircase and path encouraged viewers visually to walk their way through the spaces. At the heart of the garden was always the mysterious artist, somewhere just out of view. But you knew he or she would be back soon to take up the welder’s mask, hammer or drawings they’d left lying around. And there were intriguing surprises, such as the shiitake mushroom tower and a small but well-stocked root cellar, set right into the garden.

Lints had helped out with a display garden in the past, but “Nature’s Studio” was her first-ever design gig at the show. What was her favorite element in the garden? “I love the metal desk; parts of it came from a steel salvage yard,” says Lints. She gets to see it every day, because the very cool desk now resides in the middle of her vegetable garden in Duvall.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at