"We were adopted in a heartbeat," Sandy Milam said.
Decades later, she and her husband, both 64, are the ones helping younger gardeners pursue a passion in pebbles and petals.
The couple helped lure more than 200 rock-garden enthusiasts to Everett's Holiday Inn for the 2012 North American Rock Garden Society annual meeting taking place this weekend. People are traveling from Europe and across the United States to participate in the four-day conference.
While many of the events are meant for members only, there is a free open house from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
More than 17 vendors will be on hand to sell plants, books and specialty rock garden products. People can learn about grafting conifers, building troughs made of Styrofoam, and how to analyze soils.
"The important thing for Everett is that Everett was chosen," Sandy Milam said. "Everett's just a really fun town."
The Milams' 3.5-acre home garden near Kayak Point in Stanwood is included among several public and private gardens open to conference participants.
Much of their garden was hidden under a blanket of fresh snow last week. Blooming cyclamen and hellebores struggled to stick their blossoms above the wintery blanket.
Rock gardens come in various shapes and sizes. Everything from small, container-based troughs to large, carefully designed beds capture the eye.
What started as a hobby has enveloped the couple. A small greenhouse is bursting with plants grown from seed. The art isn't just in the plantings and rock formations.
Ted Milam also forges concrete, ornamental leaves that he paints in a rainbow of colors. They hang against a red barn near the couple's home.
"They're mostly fantasies of mine," he said. The leaves will be on sale at the rock garden event Saturday.
People don't need big yards to grow rock gardens. Sand and stones are the primary ingredients. Add an imagination and a few flourishing plants.
The Milams grow a variety of plants to fill their rock beds, including blossoming fritillaria, clematis Pixies, clematis and narcissus.
Because many of the plants send deep roots into the well-drained soil, they often are drought resistant, Sandy Milam said. Many rock gardens take inspiration from natural rock gardens that grow high in the alpine landscapes of the Cascade Range.
The alpine rock garden at the Evergreen Arboretum & Gardens, built with grant money from the rock garden society, fares so well in the summer on its own that they cut off the irrigation system, Sandy Milam said.
Some people enjoy rock gardens without being gardeners.
"A lot of our members are just hikers," she said.
Ted Milam started his love affair with plants by growing food.
"I learned everything I know about gardening from vegetable gardening," he said.
What started as a frugal necessity for the retired mail carrier now is a year-round obsession.
"It starts kind of innocently," he said. "Before you know it, it kind of consumes you."
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; email@example.com.
These beginner plants will grow well in a rock garden.
•Hens and Chicks
Miniature iris or narcissus bulbs
Lewisia cotlyedon hybrids
Explore rock gardening
The Northwestern Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society open house is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Holiday Inn, 3105 Pine St., Everett. Admission is free.
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