John and Toni Christianson have been planning this year’s Northwest Flower and Garden Festival ‘Hilltop Farm’ display garden since 2011 when they won Best in Show and the People’s Choice award. Their current design inspiration is drawn from their Lakeland travels to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top, 17th-century house and countryside in Near Sawrey in the English county of Cumbria.
The Lakeland vernacular architecture consists of cottages, banked barns, drywall stone fences, and other charming out-buildings, along with a magical combination of lakes, fellside, and bluebell woods which is typical of Lakeland.
January is a pivotal time when the ‘Hilltop’ ideas begin to manifest. Building the cottage and planting gardens for this year’s display includes a collaboration with specific creatives, including master carpenters, a drystone ‘waller’, and our talented garden staff. And, a grand scheme was created to synchronize the blooms of bulbs, vines, shrubs, trees, and herbaceous plant material.
Resourcing plant availability months ahead of time and orchestrating proper zonal temperatures for the different species and varieties of plants are essential parts of the planning process. John and Toni Christianson have a deep understanding of specific plants that can be accelerated to leaf and bloom during the Festival dates in late February, along with those that may be a gamble to force but must be considered. The use of the common and uncommon tells their Christianson’s-esque garden story, such as Epimedium, Dicentra, Vancouveria hexandra, and mature Old-fashioned and English roses.
Timing is essential. Forcing what would bloom later and holding off early blooms requires controlled zonal conditions starting from the coldest to the warmest: 1.) Outside, 2.) Hoop Houses, 3.) Greenhouse #5, 4.) Propagation House, 5.) Conservatory. Moving plants up and down the temperature slide to control their readiness is an art and a science and not for the impatient. The plants being used for the Festival are monitored weekly, if not daily by the Christianson’s Nursery staff. For example, if Exochorda macrantha ‘Pearl Bush’ begins to bud too quickly in the Propagation House, it will be transferred to Greenhouse #5 where temperatures are 10-15 degrees colder.
While visiting the Nursery, you may see plants corded off and not for sale due to their upcoming use. And, because none of the plants being used in the ‘Hilltop Farm’ landscape are greenhouse plants and are grown outdoors, you may be delightfully surprised to see Wisteria venusta ‘Alba’ budding in the Propagation House during your next visit.