Washington: South Seattle College

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6000 16th Ave SW , Seattle, WA 98106

The Coenosium Rock Garden at Seattle Community College

The ACS Reference Garden program is a partnership between the Society and established gardens that feature exemplary conifer collections. Of the many ACS Reference Gardens across the country few examples of this partnership are better executed than this one, because the crown jewel of the Arboretum, the Coenosium Rock Garden, was conceived and largely designed and planted by Bob and Dianne Fincham, ACS founding members.

This small college has an arboretum and a dwarf conifer collection that is on a par with those at large universities and is a testament to the strength of the horticultural program and the dedication of Arboretum Coordinator Van Bobbitt and his students over the years. Tucked into the north end of the campus, the arboretum has been called ‘West Seattle’s Hidden Treasure.’ With its status as an ACS Reference Garden, perhaps it will be less hidden going forward!

The SSC Arboretum, on six acres at the north end of campus, functions as a living laboratory for the Landscape Horticulture program, which first proposed the development of an arboretum in 1972. A student petition spurred the Seattle College board of trustees to approve the concept six years later.

The site includes impressive views of downtown Seattle and is adjacent to the West Duwamish Greenbelt, the largest contiguous forest within the city of Seattle. But the site also posed a major challenge—terrible soil. A gravel pit once covered much of what became the SSC campus, and to make matters worse, the college’s heavy-equipment-operation classes used the area as a training site. Their machines further compacted what was already described as “unusable clay.”

With the help of Seattle Metro, SSC improved the soil before the garden was planted. Metro provided labor and machinery and the land was graded and covered with18 inches of sewage sludge and seeded ryegrass, which was later tilled in. Despite this amendment and the addition of topsoil as each new garden was developed, much of the arboretum continues to suffer from heavy, poorly drained soil. It is impressive that the college has been able to produce a garden of this quality with such poor soil. This should give hope and inspiration to those of us that struggle with difficult sites in our own gardens!

In spite of a shoestring budget and those challenging soil conditions, the arboretum has grown, especially due to the efforts of former horticulture instructor Steve Nord. Through the years, though, the arboretum has benefited from the strong financial and in-kind support of many individuals, businesses and service organizations, particularly in the West Seattle community.

Since the SSC Arboretum’s primary mission was to serve as an outdoor classroom and laboratory for horticulture students, all of the gardens in the arboretum have been installed by students in SSC landscape construction classes. Much of the irrigation system was developed by students under the guidance of their instructors. Pruning and landscape-management classes help maintain the arboretum. The garden renovation classes have updated many gardens in recent years. And there’s not a day in the academic year when you won’t find students using the arboretum for study or hands-on learning.

The SSC Arboretum contains two conifer gardens and a sequoia grove:

  • Sequoia Grove. Specimens of giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) reside here.
  • Milton Sutton Conifer Gardens. This garden has two distinct parts that straddle a gravel road. One side is built adjacent to a dry streambed and combines many larger conifers with complementary shrubs and ground covers to create a woodland feel. Across the road is a collection of dwarf conifers interplanted with heaths and heathers. It is one of the most colorful sections of the arboretum in the winter. The Milton Sutton Conifer Garden also includes an impressive collection of Tsuga canadensis cultivars that was written up in Conifer Quarterly (Winter 2007) by former student Peter Maurer.
  • Coenosium Rock Garden. Dedicated in June 2005, this is arguably the best public collection of dwarf conifers in the region. It also contains a scree garden, many non-coniferous alpine species, and a naturalistic water feature. Dianne and Bob Fincham first conceived this garden with Steve Nord. The Finchams wanted to develop a garden that would help both students and the gardening public appreciate of the value of dwarf conifers. After Nord retired, the Finchams, landscape construction instructor Steve Hilderbrand, Yuki Kato—a landscape design student from Japan—and horticulture instructor Van Bobbitt developed a plan for the future. It took six years to complete with landscape construction classes tackling a new phase each year. The Finchams generously donated all of the conifers in the Coenosium Rock Garden from their nursery. Their friend, Rick Lupp, owner of Mount Tahoma Gardens—an alpine specialty nursery—donated a large number of alpine plants. Hilderbrand and his students worked overtime in spring 2005 to have the garden completed by its dedication in June. The dwarf conifers offer year-round appeal, due to their various forms, textures and colors—blues, greens and golds. Many offer seasonal color changes, such as Thuja orientalis 'Morgan': yellow-gold most of the year, it turns an intense orange-bronze with the arrival of colder temperatures in November, and returns to yellow-gold with March’s warming temperatures.

What does the future hold for the SSC Arboretum? The Coenosium Rock Garden filled the last undeveloped land in the arboretum. Major renovations of older gardens are being considered. About half of the original arboretum site will be occupied by the Seattle Chinese Garden, being built by the Seattle Chinese Garden Society, which will be one the largest Chinese gardens in North America. Combined with the Landscape Horticulture Program’s greenhouse, nursery and garden center, South Seattle College should be a major destination for gardeners. The future looks exciting, and the ACS Reference Garden status should prove beneficial to both partners going forward.

The garden is open to the public seven days a week from dawn to dusk.

Ed. Note: This material was adapted from an article by Van Bobbitt, SSC Horticulture Instructor and Arboretum Coordinator in the Fall 2005 issue of the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin. In September 2013, Bob Fincham conducted a tour of the garden for ACS members Jan LeCocq and Sara Malone who wrote about it in their blog Form and Foliage.