HERONSWOOD HELPED to both create and define the gardening explosion of the 1990s. The Kingston nursery’s global fame was a point of pride for Northwest gardeners; we felt like we shared in Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones’ success. Even though Hinkley added mightily to Heronswood’s cachet by traveling the world to track down botanical treasures, it all somehow felt homegrown.
So when W. Atlee Burpee closed the place down in 2006 (they’d bought it in 2000), its demise was met with mourning. After nearly 20 years of flourishing growth, Heronswood had gone dark.
So it seemed miraculous, like time traveling, to walk around Heronswood a few weeks ago with Hinkley and head gardener Celia Pedersen.
The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe bought Heronswood from Burpee in 2012, hired gardening staff and set to work. Recently Hinkley was hired as part-time director. “It feels good, like coming full circle,” he said as we strolled through the woodland garden. The hydrangeas have mostly died out, but the ground is bright with cyclamen and snowdrops.
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Just think what it was like for Hinkley to step back on the property he hadn’t seen for six years. “The woodland was solid, black, dense with overgrowth; you couldn’t see into it. The garden was suffocating,” he recalled.
At least 20 percent of the plants, including precious trillium, hellebores and arisaema, were dug and sent back to Burpee’s Pennsylvania headquarters. Plants duked it out for survival as Japanese anemones, vinca and salal ran amok. Hinkley shakes his head over Hypericum androsaemum
choking the soil: “It was a big mistake ever planting that.”
“It’s a recovery effort,” says Pedersen, who seems undaunted by acres of neglected gardens and plant tags raked into the compost. She’s creating a new accession list and relabeling plants. Like so many of the staff and volunteers helping resurrect Heronswood, Pedersen worked there years ago. Comparing memories of the original plants seems to delight everyone involved.
Pedersen explains the strategy. “We work bed by bed; it’s all time, labor and manure.” The crew is weeding out invasives, rejuvenating hedges, thinning out trees and shrubs to let light and air back into the gardens. The famous hornbeam hedges have been pruned into tidy arches again. “We’re finding treasures,” says Hinkley. He spots a tiny Hepatica maxima — “that’s a 1993 collection from Korea. I thought it was a goner!”
Mahonias have grown tall, and rhodies are budding up. Which non-woody plants survived? Erythronium revolutum and cyclamen not only lived but naturalized. Peonies and Aster ericoides persist in the perennial beds. Cardiocrinum pups are popping up. Lobelia tupa and tree ferns confounded expectations by pulling through. Hinkley, who plans to bring in plants from his collections, is putting together a wish list.
Don’t you love the thought of gardeners sending back divisions of treasured Heronswood plants to repopulate the gardens?
Looking to the future, Hinkley says, “The tribe has admiration for the garden, but realistically, there needs to be an income stream.” Weddings, garden opens and plant sales are already happening. A conference center is one idea for the future. Hinkley hopes a third-party nursery can come in to use the hoop houses and buildings, and establish Heronswood as a plant-shopping destination again.
For now, the focus is on bringing the gardens back to life. Hinkley is looking for volunteers and donors to help. If you’re game, contact him at email@example.com.
Heronswood’s first Garden Open and Plant Sale is 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 17. See www.heronswood.com.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.