Plants in paradise

Swansons' new conservatory transforms the nursery experience in Seattle
Jim McCausland

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 just north of Ballard, has long been a gardeners' favorite.

But as of three months ago, a new large-scale conservatory addition ― with everything from koi ponds to a café ― opened up Swansons' 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, customers wanted convenience," Kerwin says. "Now they want experience and instant 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 affair that's flooded with light, swimming with koi, and lush with an array of cactus that share space with cycads, figs, palms, jumbo tree ferns, and other tropicals. Outside, curving trails take you through acres of hardy plants ― trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and annuals. If you're taken with one of the collection's huge bananas, palms, or climbing philodendrons, chances are you can find its 2-foot counterpart for sale somewhere else 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 it right," he says.

Kerwin's emphasis on plants is well founded. "When I bought this nursery from Ted and Frances Swanson in 1976, foliage plants made up a large fraction of our business," he says. "Now I see that trend coming back."

If affection for indoor plants fluctuates, one thing that's constant is Seattleites' general passion for gardening. As Kerwin puts it, "In the Northwest, gardening is another kind of outdoor recreation, and I want to make sure that the best part of that experience starts here."

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