Originally published July 8, 2005
By Valerie Easton, former Natural Gardener writer
NOT CONTENT WITH thousands of square feet of extravagantly decorative edibles, Nancy Heckler figured out a way to grow pumpkins vertically. She’s made a “pumpkin cake,” a spiral measuring 12 feet across at ground level and formed of matte-black corrugated roofing material. “I love to grow pumpkins, but they can take over,” explains Heckler of her tiered creation draped in pumpkin vines.
Heckler’s vast vegetable garden is testament to soil improvement and thoughtful plant choice, as well as an astounding amount of hard work. Organic, productive and drop-dead gorgeous, this luxuriant array of edibles and flowers covers more ground than the entire city lot in Seattle that she and husband Terry sold 13 years ago to move to the country.
“I always wanted a little farm,” says Heckler of the waterfront acreage on Hood Canal called Oyster Point Gardens. Here, Heckler grows 140 cultivars of vegetables and fruits on what used to be a weed-choked field. Because the garden’s original soil was sandy, Heckler began by spending a couple of seasons enriching it with 40 yards of compost, and tilling in a succession of vetch and clover cover crops. Two years ago, she let the garden lie fallow to rest the soil and break the cycle of pests, an important technique in this all-organic garden. “But I felt hungry that year,” she laments. “I missed all the fresh stuff and hated going to the grocery store.”
With the garden again in full productivity, Heckler grazes on berries and peas right off the vine when she and border collie Niki patrol early each morning for slugs, disease and other pests.
Pass beneath local artisan Sue Skelly’s rustic arbor, and be swallowed up in the sheer scale of the plantings. Growing 5,000 square feet of edibles allows Heckler to create stunning visual effects with swathes of lettuce leaves; patches of her favorite strawberry, ‘Tristar’; and rows of colorful ‘Bright Lights’ chard. Lusty manure-fed dahlias tower over the vegetables, and the paddle-shaped leaves of hardy bananas (Musa velutina) add an air of exotica. Sunflowers, sweet-smelling nicotiana and velvety burgundy amaranth mingle with feathery bronze fennel and purple kale in a rule-breaking mix of great visual impact.
The garden’s blowsy beauty is enhanced by plants left to go to seed, like the ferny fluffs of asparagus and fennel, and the tumbled masses of red- and gold-tinged orach.
Learning from eggplant that rarely ripened and a 30-foot row of peanuts that produced three nuts, Heckler narrowed her palette to what thrives in the cool Northwest. One year, she grew 18 different squashes, another a variety of potatoes culminating in a taste-off to determine which to grow next year. This season is all about brilliant color; Heckler has planted two long rows of chard, plus cauliflower in tones of orange, purple, lime and citrus.
Heckler’s gardening year lasts a full nine months, beginning in February, when she starts tomato, corn, pumpkin and broccoli seeds in a heated greenhouse. When the misty days of autumn end with the first killing frost, Heckler cuts down the dahlias and puts the garden to bed, if only for a couple of months.
A Vintage Update for 2020
A couple of years after Pacific NW magazine and Martha Stewart Living published Nancy Heckler’s vegetable garden on Hood Canal, Heckler moved to a wooded third-of-an-acre in Indianola. Here, along curving pathways beneath venerable evergreens, she cultivates a different palette of plants. Heckler started out trying to grow vegetables in raised beds. “But there wasn’t enough sun; it was a bust,” she says cheerfully. Heckler settled into growing an extravaganza of shade-loving foliage plants, from big-leaf rhododendrons to hydrangeas, ferns and hosta. “Some people visit and ask me where the flowers are,” says Heckler. “It’s not that kind of garden.”
— Valerie Easton