Three wild acres on a sloping hillside feature a 70-foot-deep kettle as the centerpiece. The kettle was created by a receding glacier.
MILLENNIA AGO, a sheet of ice crept down Whidbey Island, carrying with it huge boulders picked up along its path from Vancouver Island. When the ice retreated, it took the boulders with it, leaving behind deep depressions in the landscape. These massive amphitheater-like indentations called kettles confound all normal depth perception as they continue to shape the island’s topography.
In the late 1990s, John and Marjie Bachert took early retirement from their jobs in San Francisco and moved to Whidbey Island. They found three wild acres halfway up the island, just south of Coupeville. Their new property, the size of a square block in San Francisco, was so inexpensive relative to what they were used to in California, that the couple talked themselves into taking it on. The place was so overgrown, they had no idea they were buying a geologic phenomenon along with the acreage.
It was clear that the property sloped sharply down, away from the road. But the hillside was such a tangle of old trees and shrubs that it took machetes and then a guy with a bulldozer to reveal the 70-foot depth of the kettle at its center. “We scraped the kettle bare,” says John, sounding more like a man reciting a ditty than one describing his efforts to discover the mystery of his land’s topography.
The couple started work at the top of the slope, clearing space to build their home. The five-year plan was to get the house built, construct a deer fence and carve pathways into the property’s steep slopes.
The once-wild acreage is now a big burst of enthusiastic garden. There’s an orchard, a lilac walk, berry patch, vegetable gardens, masses of perennials and flowering trees and shrubs. Hellebores and viburnum bloom in winter, followed by 600 primroses and pale pink ornamental cherry trees filled with the hum and buzz of hundreds of bees. Camellias, clematis and rhododendrons flower in May. In summer, roses and hardy fuchsias take over the show. The Bacherts grow mostly rugosa roses because they’re disease-resistant and drought-tolerant; water is expensive on the island.
“My wife likes color in the spring,” explains John, of Marjie’s inspiration for her work as a fabric artist. John spends three hours a day gardening, year-round. He’s taken Master Gardener training and volunteers at the clinic in Coupeville. “I’ve learned so much about gardening … as usual, most of it the hard way,” he says. He’s left one side of the garden forested, piling up brush beneath the trees for bird habitat. Ferns and salal green the garden; unfortunately, so does lamium, which he’s constantly weeding out.
Deeper down into the kettle, John contained the slope with concentric rows of railroad ties. He dug a big pond at the very bottom to capture runoff from the garden above. While most of the soil is rocky, it gets richer and less stony down into the kettle. It’s gardening in the round at the bottom of the garden, and the funnel-like depression is so smoothly symmetrical that it looks sculpted. Magnificent big-leaf maples preside down here, but partway back up the hill is a sunny terraced slope where Marjie grows vegetables.
“Every fall she says she’s through gardening, and then early spring after a winter of eating store-bought lettuce, she’s out sowing seeds,” John says of the tidy vegetable garden tended by his wife.
Even after all the digging up of rocks and trekking up and down the hillside, the Bacherts love their unusual property. The house is perched on the lip of the bowl, and from the deck you can peer down past acres of cultivated garden into the depths of the kettle. “We can stand out on the deck and watch all four seasons unfold below us,” John says.