October 3, 2022

GARDENS ARE BUILT by hand and heft, over time. Remarkable gardens are invested with great heart. The Cass Turnbull Garden, a collaborative endeavor involving a community of designers, gardeners and horticultural craftspeople, is a testament to the love and respect for a singular plantswoman.

In 1987, Cass Turnbull founded a nonprofit member organization dedicated to arresting “the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs.” Plant Amnesty grew into a respected local resource for homeowners and landscape professionals with a reach that now extends well beyond our region.

With her unique blend of wit and whimsy, coupled with a fierce commitment to healthy landscapes and the protection of trees in the urban canopy, Turnbull was an irrepressible force of nature. Her unexpected death in January 2017 rocked the horticultural community.

The idea for a Cass Turnbull Garden was conceived at her memorial service that March. By April, Katharine “Kay” Bullitt, well-known Seattle philanthropist and champion of education, racial equity, arts and the environment, had offered up the west-facing slope of her Capitol Hill property.

At the time, the site was an overgrown thicket. “We spent the first two years just clearing brush and sheet mulching to keep weeds down,” says Jack Bautsch, president of the Plant Amnesty board of directors. Meanwhile, stakeholders held a series of thoughtful design charrettes to define the purpose of the garden, how it would serve the community, and how it might honor and reflect everything Turnbull stood for. The property, which had been deeded to Seattle Parks and Recreation in 1977, would become a public park. There would be room for picnics and pruning demonstrations.

Once the brambles were subdued and countless stumps removed, local landscapers volunteered to begin contouring and terracing the steeply sloping hillside. Landscape consultant Kathleen Day took the lead on an overall design approach. Students from the Edmonds College Horticulture Program created a plan for the north end of the property. By March 2020, students from the University of Washington Landscape Architecture Program, under the direction of faculty adviser Daniel Winterbottom, prepared to install the plan in a hands-on practicum designed to teach students garden design and construction. We know how that turned out.

“COVID barely slowed the process,” Bautsch tells me. “By winter 2021, Winterbottom, a teaching assistant and 11 students worked long days, in mud, rain and snow, to bring the plan to life.” Working with landscaping professionals, students have had a hand in every step of the project, from building dry-stack walls to welding.

Today, a 5-foot-wide ADA-accessible pathway switches back and forth through the heart of the garden, and meandering paths of permeable crushed stone intersect with terraced overlooks detailed with salvaged bluestone and cobbles. Impressive granite capstones salvaged from a tumbling wall on the property now top stately benches. And throughout the garden, gabion benches and retaining walls, attractively faced with reclaimed brick and bluestone, discreetly hold rubble unearthed on the site.

In addition to multiple truckloads of landscape stone, Seattle Children’s donated more than 200 plants salvaged from an area slated for development. Other large plants rescued from private gardens in the Plant Amnesty network required heroic measures and skilled maneuvering to install in the garden.

Finally, last November, 60 people showed up for the “Big Plant.” Over the course of five days, they installed hundreds of plants from the on-site nursery, which had been attentively cared for by Plant Amnesty member Nancy Short, with help from other members and neighborhood volunteers. With the help — and heart — of many, the Cass Turnbull Garden is coming along. Visit the Plant Amnesty website to schedule a tour of the garden and learn more about this storied property and the people who are honoring a memory by making a garden.