At Far Reaches Farm, this couple of world-traipsing plant-aholics are building, one cool plant at a time, a mystique as potent as that of the late, lamented Heronswood nursery.
PLANT GEEKS are flocking to Port Townsend to visit Far Reaches Farm, the home, display gardens and specialty nursery owned by Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken. The buzz is that these world-traipsing plant-aholics are building, one cool plant at a time, a mystique as potent as that of the late, lamented Heronswood nursery.
The story of Far Reaches Farm is about more than hard work and hip plants. At heart it’s a romance. Dodson and Milliken met and fell in love on a seed-collecting expedition to China. Both gave up their previous lives and nurseries, and Milliken moved from Vermont to join Dodson on the West Coast. Eight years ago the pair founded Far Reaches Farm and have been hard at work ever since building gardens and a nursery with the largest variety of taxa of any in the state.
“Kelly can spot a garden-worthy, future-classic plant from 10 miles off and propagate it. And when he teamed up with Sue, he just doubled his cachet,” says Steve Lorton, longtime Northwest bureau chief of Sunset magazine. Now the property boasts a green-roofed gazebo, a bog garden, a long display border and a vast lathe house. “There wasn’t a tree on this place when we bought it, and we’re both shade gardeners,” says Dodson. Deciding they were too old to start planting trees, the couple built a lathe mansion to shelter gardens full of shade-loving treasures.
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Dodson and Milliken spend years testing and evaluating unusual varieties of trillium, epimedium, snowdrops, agapanthus, primroses, lilies, iris, peonies and asters, among many others. “We have 128 different varieties of crocosmia. . . It’s a riot when they’re blooming,” says Milliken. They grow plants unlike any you’ve ever seen, such as towering cardiocrinums (the couple discovered the first pink one of these lily relatives), tree dahlias, carnivorous plants and an evergreen butterfly bush (Buddleia loricata) with white flowers.
Despite their expertise, Dodson and Milliken aren’t plant snobs; they’re always selecting plants that will perform reliably in Northwest gardens.
Wandering through the lathe house I become tongue-tied trying to imagine how to pronounce the names of plants so provocatively mottled, striped, weird, unusual and varied. Filled with so much exotic-looking flora, the farm is understandably becoming the ultimate collector’s nursery.
Dodson and Milliken are so well-connected and respected that their farm has grown to reflect the passions and hopes of plant collectors around the world. Most of the plants are grown from seed collected in the wild; the couple spent several weeks collecting in China again this past fall. Many other plants come as gifts from friends, or exchanges, and the couple give many more to botanical gardens. Milliken hopes to send some of the plants raised from Chinese seed back to China someday. At Far Reaches Farm, gardening is an exercise in continuity and generosity, a globe-trotting scientific endeavor as well as a fine madness of plants.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.