MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Kathleen and John Neal are the perfect storm of talents.
She’s handy with plants and Pinterest ideas. He likes to build and mow.
The result: a garden paradise. It’s of caliber to be on an annual public garden tour, but the Mountlake Terrace couple doesn’t want 700 strangers coming through their yard in a single day.
Joining the Northwest Perennial Alliance was the perfect fit. The alliance allows members to visit one another’s gardens throughout Western Washington as part of their “open garden” program. It also offers friendship, classes and discounts at many garden stores.
For $35 a year, what more could you want? It even comes with a fat guidebook with photos and gardeners’ stories.
But you have to be a member to get your green thumbs on one.
“The book has gardens grouped by region that are open for a few days on particular weekends,” Kathleen Neal said. “There’s time to talk to the gardener. That’s a plus. Many are learning. It’s much more personal.”
The alliance consists of a network of neighborhood groups throughout Puget Sound. Groups in Snohomish County have fun names such as Late Bloomers (Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace); Sequiturs (Everett, Mukilteo, Marysville); Northern Exposure (Arlington, Marysville, Camano Island) and the Sno-King Plant Junkies (Kenmore, Woodinville, Bothell).
Members meet informally on a local level to talk shop, swap tips and socialize.
It’s all part of the plan.
Northwest Perennial Alliance was founded by a small group of plant enthusiasts in Seattle in 1984 and now has about 1,300 members. It was patterned after the Hardy Plant Society of Great Britain, offering free garden tours, lectures, plant sales and a seed exchange. The alliance is a partner at Bellevue Botanical Garden, where it maintains a perennial garden and offers training through workshops and volunteer crews.
There are 85 open gardens this year to tour.
“Open garden connects people who share the same passion,” said NPA member and garden book editor Ilse Nethercutt, of Everett.
“I have toured countless gardens and have never come away from any garden without something — a new plant to try or a new plant combo, ideas for yard art or the memory of a wonderful host who was fun to talk to. It’s about connecting people who share a love of gardening, who want to get new ideas and to learn from each other. So, for that matter, you learn just as much from a newer garden in progress as you do from a mature garden that has been worked for many years. I tell people that if their heart is in their garden, then that garden is worth sharing with others.”
The Neals have been married 52 years. She worked in the health insurance field. He was a remodeling contractor and worked in restaurant supply. When they moved into the suburban home in 1978, there was an apple tree and a big yard with a swing set for their three kids, then 8, 10 and 14. Then there was a big vegetable garden. Now there’s a big fish pond and a wonderland of foliage and flowers throughout the property that seems secluded from hustle of a nearby highway.
A he-shed/she-shed makes for a happy marriage.
“The barn door side houses all his stuff,” she said, “and the porch side houses all my stuff.”
The division of labor also keeps marital harmony.
“I’m not a gardener,” he said. “I generally just take care of the lawn.”
She plants and designs. Her touches in the garden bring to mind a Pinterest board, which makes sense as it’s where she gets and shares ideas. She scours Craigslist and yard sales for items to repurpose as accent pieces, such as chandeliers and a tricycle she painted turquoise.
That green iron railing that borders the flowers?
“Those used to be black wrought-iron railings in our upstairs living room,” she said.
The garden tiles she made are her most “pinned” item, she said.
“I got dollar-store food storage tubs and put leaves in the bottom. Then I sprayed them with a release agent like Pam or WD-40 then filled with concrete.”
After it hardens, pop it out and — voila! — garden tiles.
To see it in person, you just might have to join the club.