Heronswood has a second chance.
It was one of those do you remember where you were horticulture moments. I do. I remember exactly where and what I was doing. My moment came on May 31, 2006 as I was leading a planning meeting for Raleigh’s first Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tour, benefitting the JC Raulston Arboretum. As we were finishing up a successful session, a staff member knocked on the door and said, “I thought you’d want to know, Heronswood is closed; Burpee is shutting down the nursery and moving the research and retail operations to Pennsylvania.” We sat in stunned silence.
The mid 80s and 90s were the golden years of gardening. In 1988 I moved to Raleigh, married, worked, and made hay while the sun shined as a weekend gardener. I remember it was hard finding a good garden center. The best place to buy plants was at the State Farmer Market. That same year, Tony Avent, along with is wife Michelle, began to build Plant Delights Nursery, at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens, in Raleigh, North Carolina. A year earlier, on the opposite coast, Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones started a destination garden and nursery that they called Heronswood. I believe the Hinkley/Avent ventures became a horticultural manifest destiny. Things began to change in gardening, and the nineties were sweet.
When Heronswood was Hinkley, the botanical garden was, by all reports, one of the most impressive and diverse examples of plantsmanship in North America. But I’d never been there. I ordered from their catalogue, I admired photos, I even envied anyone who made a mecca to this Kitsap County’s internationally acclaimed nursery. When I learned Heronswood was closing in 2006, I believed I’d lost the last hope of ever visiting…until now.
During a recent visit to Seattle where I was speaking at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, my good friend Nancy Heckler invited me in for a private tour. Nancy was a long time docent when Hinkley and Jones owned Heronswood, and was one of the first to return as a volunteer when it re-opened.
Today, Heronswood is owned and operated by the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe. In early 2012, Burpee placed Heronswood up for auction. It seemed like a natural fit for this Pacific Northwest Native American tribe, located close to the Heronswood site, to want to save the land. Port Gamble S’Klallam, with 2,000 enrolled members, have a reputation for environmental stewardship; but also, the 15-acre property makes up part of their ancestral lands.
The tribe is planning to restore the gardens, but this will take time and money.
The first step towards the garden’s restoration was reacquainting the volunteers with the garden, led by Dan Hinkley, along my friend Nancy Heckler, and Celia Pedersen, who had been the head gardener for 7 years under Hinkley’s direction. Other volunteers from the tribe and Heronswood’s past glory days have been participating in these work parties and more people are stepping forward as they learn of work being done at the garden. Tribal members are enthusiastic about the preservation of their garden, and are interested in learning more about horticulture. A tribal community member, Bernie Folz, has volunteered for practically every volunteer session, working along side Celia — learning, nurturing, and caring.
As word gets out, companies are also stepping up to help by adding plants from their collections. As an example, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs donated daffodils and tulips to help bring new life back to Heronswood.
Luckily for Heronswood, the old inventory book has been located. Plants at Heronswood are marked with a blue tag, and a numeric identifier. The number on the tag is a key that corresponds with the botanical Latin name of the plant and the expedition from which it was acquired. Dan led many plant hunting expeditions, and each plant was inventoried with this information. This inventory holds all these keys.
As I looked around the gardens, it was refreshing to see work being done. I came upon Zach, another garden worker from the tribe, as he was rescuing rare Galanthus bulbs from a holding area. The varieties are unknown, since the infamous blue tags could not be found. The hundreds of flowering little bulbs were going to be potted up in an attempt to identify, and to later be placed in a more visible location in one of the main gardens.
Indeed, the attitude of those volunteering on this day was cheerful, optimistic, and a wee bit giddy. Every volunteer day, and every day Celia works in the tribe’s garden again, is a day closer to bringing Heronswood back as the world-class botanical garden it once was. This makes everyone involved very happy.
Before I arrived, Nancy warned me about the state of the gardens. Clearly the neglect from the former years was noticeable, such as the lack of maintenance–weeds self-sowing and uninvited–as well as gaping holes in the ground where plants were removed; but the ashes for this Phoenix were there in the form of thousands of cyclamen blooming everywhere. These jewels were rising as a reminder of good things to come. The air wafted with several varieties of Daphne in bloom, and also Galanthus, colorful berries, perky primrose, and hellebores.
With the S’Klallam Tribe’s commitment, along with Dan and the volunteer crew, they are re-working beds one garden at a time, taking it slow, akin to an archeological dig. Sinking shovels at random and starting again would be detrimental to identifying what may still be there. The garden restoration is a veritable treasure hunt.
Soon Heronswood will be shared, photographed, and studied, offering plant sales, workshops, lectures, and other activities yet to be announced. The garden is scheduled to be open this year on May 18th, July 6th, and September 21st; and people like me who missed it the first time around will have a second chance.
Heronswood has a Facebook page. Please like them and share on your page. We, all gardeners and horticulturists, have a chance to help this garden come back. And if you are like me and never visited when it was in its prime, you may be able to do so in the near future.
To learn more about Heronswood or to make a donation, please visit their website at www.heronswood.com.
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