The blue poppies are gone, says Dan Hinkley, as he walks through the Heronswood garden he created and is now restoring near Kingston, on the Kitsap Peninsula, but he'll collect plants in the Himalayas this fall, and he'll bring back more seeds.
Walking down a narrow path through tall second- or third-growth conifers, wearing a fleece pullover on a chilly morning, Hinkley explains that he and his partner, Robert Jones, started the garden when they moved into a house on the property in the late summer of 1987. The trees were small, but they had to rip out the usual tangle of Himalayan blackberries. Then, they cleared paths through the woods, built stone walls, created beds, collected plants.
"I planted a hedge between us and the neighbors on the east side of our property on the weekend we moved in," Hinkley recalls. "We were tired and stressed out, thinking we were not going to be able to afford the property and had a domestic quarrel. Since then it became my mantra to never plant anything in your garden when you are not happy — the bad memories linger with the plant."
Up above, they created a nursery. At its height, Brinkley says, they employed 30 people. They sent out 50,000 yearly catalogs, which people prized not least for Hinkley's own well-written essays. (You wouldn't believe how much work that catalog took, Hinkley says.)
"Heronswood helped to both create and define the gardening explosion of the 1990s," Crosscut writer Valerie Easton wrote in Pacific NW. The garden was "heralded as the most impressive collection of exotic plants in the country," as Rachel Pritchett wrote two years ago in the Kitsap Sun.
In 2000, they sold the property and the business to the giant W. Atlee Burpee company. Hinkley and Jones stayed on at Heronswood, although in 2004 they left the house on the property and moved 12 miles away to Indianola. Then, in 2006, Burpee moved the nursery operation to Pennsylvania, fired the staff and largely closed the place down.
Allegedly, the company stripped the garden of many exotic plants. Unquestionably, it let the place run down. It looked for a buyer. It didn't find one. Maintenance became minimal. Garden people assumed Heronswood was history.
"I knew in my heart of hearts" what was going to happen, Hinkley says. He thought someone should just put the neglected garden out of its misery.
And then . . . Two years ago, Burpee put the property up for sealed-bid auction. The buyer was the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe, which has a small reservation just up the road. (If you don't turn off the Hansville Road on 288th Street to reach Heronswood, but drive a bit farther to Little Boston Road and turn there, you quickly reach the tribal headquarters.) Hinkley was surprised. So were a lot of other people.
The Port Gamble S'Klallams may not have bought a garden before, but they have lived in the neighborhood for a long, long time. In 1853, when W.C. Talbot and a crew from the sailing ship Julius Pringle sailed into Port Gamble Bay looking for a place to build a sawmill, they found the tribe living on the spit at the western entrance to the bay.
"According to S’Klallam oral traditions," says the Port Gamble S'Klallam website, "the level sandy spit chosen for the mill site was the ancestral village known as 'Teekalet' a Klallam/Chimakum word that described the shining sand in full sunlight." (In the 1850s, white people found Indian remains nearby; they doused them with coal oil and burned them.)
A steam-powered mill started ripping old-growth logs at Port Gamble that same year, and subsequently the mill company, Pope and Talbot, built the company town that still stands there. (The last version of the mill ran until 1995, when it shut down for good. The mill site and town are still owned by a Pope and Talbot successor .)
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