Whidbey team wins top honors at Northwest Flower Garden Festival

Jellyfish. The new trend in gardening.


Special to the South Whidbey Record

Moon jellyfish — those strange beautiful blobs of the sea — helped a team of Whidbey Islanders win top honors this week at the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival in Seattle, one of the nation’s premiere horticultural events.

Bizarre? Perhaps.

But maybe not considering the Whidbey team included not just landscapers and plant experts but also a pet store, hardware store, yoga studio, nursery, nail salon, willow branch artisans and a glassblower.

Oh, and several grandchildren.

Allow Deby Kohlwes, garden designer and project manager at The Grounds Professional in Clinton, to explain the concept behind the exhibit named “Dreamscapes by the Sea.”

“It was really because I saw a live jellyfish tank at a spa in Bellingham,” said Kohlwes, who’s worked on several installments for the huge Seattle show over the years. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool to put in the garden show?’”

Actually, Kohlwes admitted, she wasn’t at a typical spa but floating in an immersion pod where one goes to experience “ultimate stillness.”

“What it did was give me that feeling of peace that I have when I’m by the sea,” she said. “Last year at the Flower & Garden Show, we created Healing Gardens, which was the theme. I thought why not create a similar feeling but use elements of a seascape. My description is that it’s about mindfulness and the Salish Sea.

“In all the years I’ve been at the festival, I’ve never seen the ocean emphasized as a natural feature.”

The exhibit features a stately Hartley Botanic Glasshouse from England surrounded by water streaming through driftwood and rock with accents of flowers, shrubs and trees. A spot to sit a while to contemplate jellyfish in many forms welcomes visitors inside the glass house. Luscious layers of plants selected by Bayview Garden seem to float around with the live jellies swirling inside the saltwater tank.

Wilkie’s Excavating & Landscaping of Clinton helped construct the 30-by-40-foot space, laying down walkways, patio, greenhouse and gardening structures. Terra Firma Hardscapes of Everett provided the water feature, called The Wave. Other Whidbey businesses included Kula Yoga Studio (wave drum), Able Rustic (willow branch bench) Ace Hardware (Big Green Egg grill) and Nails with a View that carefully painted plant names on large white shells collected by Kohlwes grandkids.

“I tried to include to involve as many Whidbey people as I could,” she said.

Kohlwes’ creation is one of 20 gardening installations featured at the downtown Seattle Convention Center that attracts some 80,000 visitors every year. The five-day show ends Sunday.

Exhibitors had 72 hours to move in mountains of dirt, mulch, boulders, trees, fields of flowers, ferns, shrubs, and put in place a variety of greenhouses, sheds, patios, fireplaces, fountains, ponds, streams, hot tubs and even swimming pools.

“We dropped the trees in first, then the dirt, mulch, rocks and constructed everything on site,” said Cody Wilkie, owner of Wilkie’s Excavating & Landscaping.

Colorful outdoor plants included California Lillac, Feelin’ Blue Deodora Cedar, Zig Zag Camellia, Dwarf Lily-of-the-Valley, Neon Burst Dogwood and Marianne Blue Windflower. California wax myrtle, Beach strawberry, and Shore Pine, described as “low-maintenance elegance,” also lined a pathway of crushed oyster shells.

For the greenhouse interior, Kohlwes turned to Bayview Garden in search of a calming canopy to surround the delicate, translucent bell-shaped jellies that bob and throb like little moons.

“I used a lot of different succulents, they have a cool look,” said Tanner Hansen, lead display artist with Bayview. “I also used green foliage and I went with deep green plants with weird spikes and funky structures.” Many air plants, some tucked in sea urchin shells, also contributed to the underwater illusion.

Callahan McVay of Callahan’s Firehouse Studio in Langley also got in the act. The renowned glassblower contributed glass jellyfish orbs and tackled a new glassblowing challenge.

“I asked Callahan, ‘How about creating jellyfish lights?’” Kohlwes recalled. “He looked at me like I was crazy. But he did it and just look at how beautiful they turned out.”

The specialized, $2,500 round tank arrived from Czechoslovakia while the jellies flew in from a distributer in Florida.

Care and feeding of the gelatinous zooplankton that have no brain, heart or blood fell to Critters & Co. Pet Center & Rescue located at Ken’s Korner in Langley. The pet shop known for “Raja,” a huge roaming tortoise, happens to be owned by Wilkie’s mother, Debbie.

“We all learned so much about jellyfish,” he said.

Dropping the tiniest baby brine shrimp in the salt water tank at feeding time, Wilkie explained that moon jellies — estimated to be 600 million years old — live a well-rounded life.

“The tank must be round and they have to keep moving or they’ll get stuck in corners,” he said.

Finding out what jellies eat isn’t hard. Just look inside them. A speck of orange shrimp shone through two of the translucent jellies as digestion got underway. Like flamingos, they can take on the hue of the food they eat.

“We didn’t catch these jellies but moon jellyfish are definitely local,” Kohlwes added.

And more of them might be swimming in local gardens.

A few festival-goers inquired about buying the tank and its occupants at the close of the festival on Sunday.

“Oh, this has been popular,” Wilkie said. “We may have brought it in, but we’re not taking it home.”

The team is taking home three awards, however. A Gold Medal awarded by festival judges, Mutual Materials Best Use of Hardscapes award judged by regional experts and the Fine Gardening Magazine Award for inspiring “gardeners to reach for new levels of design excellence and creativity while keeping those goals achievable.”

Jellyfish. The new trend in gardening.