Swansons' new conservatory transforms the nursery experience

There's a new place in town to go to beat the chilly March blues― and it's not a spa. Swansons Nursery, opened in 1924 justnorth of Ballard, has long been a gardeners' favorite. But as ofthree months ago, a new large-scale conservatory addition ―with everything from koi ponds to a café ― opened upSwansons' appeal, even to those whose thumbs aren't so green.

Wally Kerwin, who runs what has long been a Seattle institution,thinks the change is well timed. "In the 1980s and 1990s, customerswanted convenience," Kerwin says. "Now they want experience andinstant gratification. They get that here."

These days you can take in a lecture, find the perfect orchid,or enjoy a pasta salad in a rain forest. This 11,000-foot,custom-built conservatory is a contemporary, high-ceilinged affairthat's flooded with light, swimming with koi, and lush with anarray of cactus that share space with cycads, figs, palms, jumbotree ferns, and other tropicals. Outside, curving trails take youthrough acres of hardy plants ― trees, shrubs, vines,perennials, and annuals. If you're taken with one of thecollection's huge bananas, palms, or climbing philodendrons,chances are you can find its 2-foot counterpart for sale somewhereelse in the nursery.

That payoff is important to Kerwin. "If you come in and think'plants' before you think 'restaurant' or 'gift shop,' we've got itright," he says.

Kerwin's emphasis on plants is well founded. "When I bought thisnursery from Ted and Frances Swanson in 1976, foliage plants madeup a large fraction of our business," he says. "Now I see thattrend coming back."

If affection for indoor plants fluctuates, one thing that'sconstant is Seattleites' general passion for gardening. As Kerwinputs it, "In the Northwest, gardening is another kind of outdoorrecreation, and I want to make sure that the best part of thatexperience starts here."

INFO: Swansons Nursery and Festivities Garden Café(9701 15th Ave. N.W.; www.swansonsnursery.comor 206/782-2544) is 2 miles north of Ballard.

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