Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

By: Marty Wingate

Marty Wingate is a garden writer and lecturer in Seattle. She writes a weekly feature in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and…

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A huge star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) takes an uncommon ride down the highway to the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden. Photographs by Greg Butler

A huge star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) takes an uncommon ride down the highway to the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden. Photographs by Greg Butler

If a big bulldozer headed for your garden, what would you do? Would you grab your favorite plant and run? When faced with the loss of her garden, Elda Behm saved more than just a few plants; she saved her entire garden—at least most of it— and it has become the anchor for the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden.

Since 1965, Behm had gardened on a one-acre lot in the small town of Burien, just south of Seattle—too close, as it turned out, to SeaTac, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Known for their mild climate and gorgeous views of mountains and water, many Burien neighborhoods lost their image of sleepy, small-town life as the ever-growing airport traffic conflicted with increasing numbers of people in the region. In 1997, the Port of Seattle condemned land in the area in order to expand the airport with a third runway. Behm wondered what the fate of her garden—full of uncommon plants—would be.

A weeping white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’) being dug at Elda Behm’s home garden

A weeping white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’) being dug at Elda Behm’s home garden

Greater help than Behm could imagine emerged, much of it from people who had visited her garden over the previous thirty years. Stephen Lamphear, then a Burien city councilman, began a campaign to save Behm’s garden in some form. Others soon joined the effort. They persuaded Burien, the city of SeaTac, and the Port to make available three and a half acres of land that had been abandoned after construction of the airport’s second runway in 1968.

The weeping white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’) in its new home at the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

The weeping white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’) in its new home at the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

The Cost of Free Land

Free land can be a great gift, but, as Greg Butler and other volunteers discovered, it often comes with its own costs. When the port originally acquired this parcel, subcontractors demolished the houses but neglected to haul away the debris. Instead, houses were merely torn down and buried in their own basements.

A portion of the pond and plantings in Elda Behm’s Paradise Garden

A portion of the pond and plantings in Elda Behm’s Paradise Garden

The cleanup not carried out in the previous demolition was accomplished by the port in 2000. Butler, the garden’s former manager, says that they found everything in the construction rubble—including more than one kitchen sink. Meanwhile, volunteers planted borders in front of the community center across the parking lot, and held an official grand opening in June, alerting neighbors and the larger community to the evolving garden.

Moving a Garden

After the port removed the vast amounts of debris, it was time to install the garden, which would consist of thousands of plants from Behm’s garden. In the fall of 2000, garden volunteers, many of them Behm’s friends, dug up ground covers, perennials, and shrubs. The plants were held at the city of SeaTac’s nearby parks department facilities until the spring planting. During winter 2001, a crew from Big Trees, Inc, of Snohomish, dug the large trees from Behm’s property and transplanted them to the new garden. The trees included specimens of Parrotia persica, twenty feet high and fifteen feet wide; a weeping Scots pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’) that Behm had started in a one-gallon pot; and a large star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). In spring, volunteers returned to place all the smaller plants dug the previous fall; among the volunteers were student interns from a local high school. The result was Elda Behm’s Paradise Garden, designed to be an inspirational re-creation of her original garden.

Behm’s enormous plant collection was no accident; she has an extensive background in gardening. Before marrying, she was a 4-H leader in horticulture; while married and rearing three children, she lectured and judged for the Washington State Snoqualmie District Federation of Garden Clubs. She joined the local chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, where, she says, she learned a “simple” trick for remembering the scientific name of each new plant in her collection (such as Rhododendron yakushimanum)—just say the name over and over every time you look at it. The garden that she had created around the family home was, indeed, a paradise for plant enthusiasts. Its successor, Elda Behm’s Paradise Garden, occupies about an acre of the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden, which now totals ten and a half acres. Only a portion of the site is currently under cultivation, but the ideas and projects completed and underway show that Behm inspired something big. Although she now lives about forty miles away, Behm and her good friend, Jolly Eitelberg, still work in the garden weekly.

Elda Behm volunteering in her new garden at the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

Elda Behm volunteering in her new garden at the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

A Tour of the New Garden

The entrance to Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden is marked by an openwork iron gate that hints at the bounty beyond. Designed and built by local artists Steve Hussey and Sherry Glenn of Iron Idiom, it was installed in summer 2002. Just outside the gates, the Cascadian Cultivars section displays plants with a definite Northwest association, such as selections of the Western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale).

A large pond recirculates 33,000 gallons of water an hour through Elda Behm’s Paradise Garden, providing a natural setting for plants happy in water, at water’s edge, or on moist banks above the water line. The water feature was designed and installed, as a donation to the garden, by Russell Water Gardens in Redmond, Washington. Among the many lessons for visitors is just how much noise a water feature can disguise. There’s no denying that, although the garden moved out of the way of SeaTac’s third runway, it did not move far. Every few minutes, depending on the day’s flight schedules, all possibility of conversation is obliterated by planes not far overhead. It makes the relatively quiet time between planes all the more precious, but it does not detract from the beauty of the various display gardens.

And varied they are. In order to expand its exposure, its volunteer base, and its garden displays, Highline has partnered with several local plant societies. On the west side of the main path, the Puget Sound Daylily Club maintains a bed that is a recognized display garden for the American Hemerocallis Society. On the east side, the King County Iris Society grows wonderful choices for Northwest gardens. The Seattle Rose Society showcases a wide variety of excellent roses for the Seattle area, arranging them around a formal lawn with a central fountain. This romantic setting has become a hot spot for weddings, which, in turn, introduce new people to the wonders of this new public garden.

Rescuing Another Garden

While these displays help draw in more volunteers and appeal to more visitors, it’s never forgotten that the garden began as a rescue effort. Rescuing has become the norm at the garden, particularly with the recent addition of the Seike Japanese Garden. Built in the early 1960s by the Seike family, to a design by Shintaro Okada of Hiroshima, the Seike Japanese Garden remained open to the public, except for a ten-year hiatus, until airport affairs took over. In 2005, with funding from the state and the city of SeaTac, preparations began for another big move; the garden was fully relocated to Highline by the summer of 2006.

Moving the Seike garden took time and exacting skill. “They measured every rock and how it was placed, and replicated it,” Behm notes. Mature specimen plants, including a century-old Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), were also relocated for this pond-and-mountain style garden. The artesian well on the original site, however, had to be replaced at Highline by one operated by a recirculating pump.

A gathering in the Seattle Rose Society’s garden at Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

A gathering in the Seattle Rose Society’s garden at Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

It may seem that the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden is a garden of last chances, but the current master plan shows that a number of new gardens are on the way. The design committee, led by landscape architect Michael Brown of Johnson Braund Design Group, keeps the garden’s forward movement on a planned path. Among the new gardens is a Backyard Wildlife Garden, now in the planning and funding stages. The plan, by Doug Rice, outreach program coordinator for King County’s Water and Land Resources Division, includes design ideas for any size garden, with a special section for children.

The Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden, as with any garden, is a work in progress. But the progress already made, in design, plants, and cooperation, has already made its mark.

A display garden for the American Hemerocallis Society, maintained by the Puget Sound Daylily Club

A display garden for the American Hemerocallis Society, maintained by the Puget Sound Daylily Club

If You Should Like to Visit . . .

The Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden is located at 13735  24th Avenue S, just west of the intersection of 138th, in SeaTac, WA, and just south of the North SeaTac Community Center. Hours are daily from 7 am to dusk, and admission is free. For more information about the garden, membership, and volunteer opportunities, call 206/391-4003 or visit www.highlinegarden.org.

The Seike Japanese Garden in its new home at the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden

The Seike Japanese Garden in its new home at the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden