The Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, the Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden and Olympic Sculpture Park offer wonderful winter getaways in the city.
MOUNTAINS AND OCEAN offer respite from gloomy days, but where can you score a nature fix in the heart of the city this time of year? We’re deep into the season of sociability, so time away from guests and obligations might be especially welcome this week and next. Whether contemplating art al fresco, marveling at a near-tropical garden doing its thing the week before Christmas or just inhaling winter plant perfume, you’ll return home refreshed — and with some possibilities in mind for winter interest in your own garden.
• The Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard is especially appealing when the summer crowds have dispersed. English, longtime horticulturist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, transformed the acres around the locks into a thriving botanical garden boasting more than 500 species of plants. The park is filled with tropical-looking treasures like palm trees, but also lots of oaks, dawn redwoods and magnolias that come into their own once the flowery layer of the garden has died away. The pathways are paved and wide, but you also can walk cross-country over lawn-covered hills to admire the shape, line and bark of the many trees and shrubs. Modeled after a classic English estate, the garden is very green in winter, offering a sense of horticultural possibilities and Seattle history, along with views of water, boats and fish ladders.
• We’re lucky enough in Seattle to have a garden planned specifically for winter interest. The Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden, an open oval stroll garden that seems to draw sunshine even on dreary days, is a short walk from the Graham Visitors Center at the Washington Park Arboretum. Curator Ray Larson advises that yellow-flowering Mahonia ‘Arthur Menzies’, vanilla-scented sarcococca and the highly fragrant Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’ should be blooming by now. Camellia sasanqua ‘Apple Blossom’, one of Larson’s favorites, gives hope for springtime to come with its soft pink blossoms so incongruous on a winter day. Larson points out the showy Chinese red birches at the south end of the garden (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis). The plants are labeled, but this isn’t the time to be reading tags. Now, on the cusp of the winter solstice, is the moment to drink in the beauty of witch hazels just opening their spidery little blossoms, and our native Anna’s hummingbirds fighting over the mahonia’s nectar-rich flowers.
• An afternoon at the Olympic Sculpture Park, with its full-on blast of western and southern light, dispels winter gloom as it shows off the possibilities of native plants and art in the landscape. A row of orange chairs along the well-populated promenade is the perfect spot to rest and contemplate a huge Calder sculpture along with the wide-open view to restored beach, Puget Sound and the Olympics. Winter horticultural highlights include a hedge of Arbutus unedo, which both fruits and flowers in winter, and a grove of pale birches under-planted in ferns, snowberry and wild roses. Descend into the valley to walk through the monumental work of Richard Serra, surrounded by the bare bones of katsuras, ginkgo and vine maple backed by a tapestry of native conifers. Inhale deeply, walk briskly, dispel the winter blues. Nature, along with art, can do that for you.
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Each of these parks is free and open every day of the year.