A new farm “growing” on Best Road moved to Seattle last Friday. Hill Top Farm was delivered in five 24-foot trucks to the Washington State Convention Center, where it was reconstructed for this week’s Northwest Flower and Garden Festival. The idea for the 2020 Christianson’s Nursery garden display – its first since 2011 – began germinating 15 years ago. On a visit to the Lake District of England, John and Toni Christianson visited Hill Top, the home of author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit and other beloved characters. “When you admire something, it stays on your mind,” said John.
Last year Christianson gave staff carpenter Carl Jaegel a photo of Potter’s cottage and asked him to get to work on an easy-to-set-up, easy-to-tear-down replica. With Jaegel in charge of set design, Christianson started buying and prepping plants in order to force their bloom. A week ago, a dozen Christianson’s staff members were putting the finishing touches on elements that would be assembled into the 52’ x 23’ display. Jaegel was making sure the 15-foot tall, 24-foot wide cottage could be broken down, packed and reconstructed easily. Christianson was trying to slow down the flowers. “We forced April, May and June blooms for February,” he said. “Once they are coming along you can’t stop them.” Greenhouse daffodils and lilies of the valley were beginning to bloom. One lovely peony would miss the show because its flowers were nearly spent.
The display garden includes an orchard, a vegetable garden and perennial flowers, roses, and rhododendrons that Potter loved. Wisteria will climb the walls of the cottage. A dry-set rock wall typical of the Lake District will stand in front. British banty hens and roosters will explore the grounds in a chicken tractor. Potter purchased Hill Top Farm with her Peter Rabbit royalties. Settling into country living and sheep farming, she acquired 4,000 acres of farmland, which she eventually donated to England’s National Trust. Much of the land she preserved is now part of the Lake District National Park.
The Skagit Valley version of her cottage was built in the Vinery, the large wooden building north of the nursery named for the stationery pea viner that sits in front. Guided by John Christianson’s photo of Hill Top, Jaegel and assistant Mike Braze used new and existing materials to recreate Potter’s home. Weathered wood for fence posts came from an old nursery loading dock. The mossy cottage roof came from a house Jaegel built from a granary on McLean Road. Every panel and piece is designed to be bolted together quickly. “It’s all labeled ‘tab A to slot B,” he says.
Last Tuesday, the sense of urgency was palpable. The cottage would be finished Wednesday, its components disassembled and stacked in a truck on Thursday, driven with all the nursery stock to Seattle on Friday and reconstructed at the Convention Center on Saturday. On Sunday and Monday, Christianson and the garden crew spread 80 yards of soil and start planting flowers, trees, and vegetables. Trees were placed in Christmas tree stands and crisscrossed with braces to keep them upright. The dry stone wall was constructed by artisan Joshua Barwick of Vashon Island. Laura Campbell, owner of MoonRose in LaConner, wove a living fence from small trees.
As this issue of the La Conner Weekly News went to press, the display garden was being judged. Festival doors open today. “How it all comes together is the coolest part of the show,” says Jaegel. For Christianson, what matters is the satisfaction of a garden well done. Most years, Christianson’s Nursery has a commercial booth. “We cart the nursery down to Seattle and sell,” says Christianson. “A display doesn’t sell. It’s all expense, so we need to attract new customers.” With 70,000 people about to admire the world of Beatrix Potter, that shouldn’t be a problem, especially if the display wins a prize. The odds are good since Christianson’s displays have twice been named “Best in Show.” (“It will!” predicts Jaegel.)
Christianson’s has chartered four buses to take local customers to the festival. All four are sold out. Tearing down the display is the saddest part, says Christianson. Plants return to the nursery’s holding space to recover after being forced to leaf early. Christianson’s staff members return to their usual jobs. The special energy of the Flower Festival dissipates. “The Festival has taken over,” says Jaegel. “I haven’t done anything else, but it has been so damn much fun!”