When Wendy Morgan accepted a friend’s invitation to go see Elda Behm’s garden in the 1990s, she had no idea she would become entangled in a project for the next 25 years. “Elda popped her head around the garage and that was the beginning of it,” Morgan says with a laugh. “She was a saleswoman.” The Port of Seattle was planning its third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Behm’s home and garden were in the way, so the port slated them for demolition, but Behm wasn’t giving up her garden without a fight. By the end of the decade, her charisma and love of her plants would entice Morgan and 200 other volunteers to move Behm’s entire garden.

As Morgan and her dog Snooks show my tour group around the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden, we see the rich community partnership that has grown up around the original effort to recycle a garden into a new space. Five local flower societies have started gardens within Highline, and many individuals pay $40 per year for a community garden plot. Some people include the garden in their daily dog walk, and hundreds turn out for the annual summer time ice cream social.

The garden’s beginnings

Elda Gothke Behm was born in 1913 and raised on a farm near Wenatchee, Washington. She became a certified landscape designer in 1953 and moved to Burien, near SeaTac, in 1954.

“Elda never met a plant she didn’t like,” Morgan reminisces as we wander through the Elda Behm Paradise Garden section of Highline.

Plants flourished under her care — enough so that the Burien City Council and the City of SeaTac (yes, there’s a city as well as an airport with that name) agreed to develop 11 acres in North SeaTac Park into a public garden, starting with relocating Behm’s plants to save them from runway three. The Highline Botanical Garden Foundation was incorporated to oversee the garden.

Volunteers worked with the Port of Seattle and the City of SeaTac from late 1999 into the spring of 2000 to move plants, trees and shrubs from Behm’s home into a holding area while gardeners prepared the soil. Behm favored native species, especially rhododendrons. The port supplied cranes and trucks to hoist conifers and other trees into their new home.

The garden is planted on former residential land that the port had claimed in the 1950s, demolishing houses for a buffer zone around runway two. Morgan, who promotes interactive tours by asking questions and urging visitors to guess the answers, wants to know what we think they found when they started digging. “Water heaters!” she tells us triumphantly after we guess wrong a few times. Buried appliances had been left behind, which had to be cleared out. But some trees and shrubs had survived from the long ago houses, so those are incorporated in the garden today.

Behm didn’t quietly slide into the background once her garden was moved. “She stayed on the board even in her nineties,” Morgan recalls. “She never gave up leadership.” Morgan remembers lots of arguments Behm had with the board over features she wanted added to the garden. Her last project was a shade garden featuring ferns, hostas, hellebores and her special favorite black trilliums. Behm died in 2008 at the age of 94.

The Japanese garden

While the thought of transplanting one entire garden is astonishing enough, in 2005 Highline relocated a second garden. The Seike family came from Japan, settling in Des Moines, Washington around 1920. The three sons all studied horticulture and helped run the family-owned Des Moines Nursery. They were forced into an internment camp during World War Two. Unlike most Japanese families, the Seikes were lucky in that a German-American family tended their plants during their internment and returned their property intact after the war. However, a much greater wartime loss befell them: their second son, Toll, died while fighting in France. Later, in conjunction with the 1962 Seattle World Fair, they hired a gardener to come from Hiroshima and build an authentic Japanese garden in Toll’s honor.

Fast forward to 2004. Again, the Port of Seattle wanted more property. This time, the Seike family nursery was on the chopping block. The city of SeaTac found funding to move the miniature mountain and waterfall garden to Highline. Now generations who were born long after World War Two can sit by the pond and contemplate this family’s suffering and perseverance.

The garden today

Highline covers 11 acres today, with half developed and half still just dreams in gardeners’ heads. In addition to grants, donations and bequests, Highline raises money at its annual plant sales. Volunteer coordinator and gardener Jolly Eitelberg propagates the plants in the garden’s greenhouse.

The garden is an extremely peaceful place, despite being so close to planes landing and taking off. Many out of town visitors with long layovers find their way to Highline, Morgan says, as it’s one of the closest attractions to the airport. But the airport has one unexpected effect on the garden — Highline can’t put koi in its ponds, because koi attract herons, which could get sucked into jet engines.

Morgan is especially proud of the victory garden, modeled after those who tended to the home front during World War Two, when fresh vegetables supplemented ration cards. Highline donates green beans, tomatoes, zucchini and other vegetables grow in the victory garden to the Tukwila Food Bank. Morgan is a big believer in sharing food. She even takes our group into her plot in the community garden and offers us parsley, cucumbers and tomatoes.

“Where do you think we get most of our volunteers?” she asks, a twinkle in her eye. “Most of our volunteers run red lights. And then when the judge says that will be 500 dollars they say they don’t have that kind of money.” They choose working in the garden as their community service so they can get outside, she says. Some like it so much they stay.

After 25 years, the garden still inspires Morgan, who loves to share its message with visitors. To her, Highline is a triumph over what looked like insurmountable odds for Behm’s beautiful garden. She repeats herself several times over the course of our tour, driving her point home: “If you have something in your life that you think should be preserved or kept somehow, you can. If you gather people around you and keep pushing.”

Images via Inhabitat