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A new beginning for the Northwest’s most legendary garden

Visitors at Heronswood Garden Credit: Flickr user chuck b.

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 .)

The tribe agreed to move across the bay into a collection of houses that the mill company built on pilings at the base of the bluff. The New Englanders who sailed into Northwestern harbors were known locally as "Bostons," and the new community was called "Little Boston."

Tribal members could easily paddle or row across the bay to work at the mill, but Little Boston was damp and flood-prone, not a great place to live. In 1939, after the federal government finally recognized the tribe, it created the current reservation, burned the old houses down below, and moved the inhabitants up onto the bluff, which is where the tribal headquarters and houses still stand, with a view out to the water of Port Gamble Bay. (The S'Klallam didn't live on the bluff before the government moved them there, but people had used it for at least 1,000 years.)

Tribal members still harvest shellfish at low tide from the shores below the bluff. In recent years, the tribe has been involved in complex negotiations over preserving second-growth forest near the reservation and cleaning up the bay. The headquarters campus occupies the site of a field where tribal chairman Jeromy Sullivan's grandfather once pastured milk cows.

Sullivan says that he personally hadn't known or thought much about Heronswood except when he saw cars parked along the shoulders of the road whenever the nursery hosted a plant sale.

Then, out of the blue, Burpee offered the property to the tribe. Sullivan says he and other tribal officials found the idea attractive, but the price — reportedly $11 million — was out of the question.

When Burpee put the property up for auction, though, the price was more reasonable. The tribe — which already owned land on the other side of 288th — submitted the winning bid. The property has been put under the control of the non-profit Port Gamble S'Klallam Foundation. Hinkley has been hired part-time to direct the restoration.

Coming back to the garden was "like a reunion," Hinkley says. Then, reality set in. "After the warm fuzzies wore off," he says, he realized he had taken on an enormous job.

Looking into woods from the edge of the field in which people park, below the building used as the foundation office and the old plastic hoop greenhouses, and near a tall hemlock that has died, (Hinkley verifies that it has to come out.), you can look past the trees into varied layers and shades and shapes and textures of green. It's dense, but the eye can see among the conifer trunks. "When we started a year ago November, this [vegetation] was a solid wall," Hinkley says. "You couldn't see into the forest garden."

Both native and exotic plants were taking over. He grabs a stem of false Solomon's seal, one of many that have sprung up in a neglected bed. He says he was just in Europe, where garden people were all excited about cultivating false Solomon's seal. Here, it has gone out of control.

The tribe realizes how much work remains to be done. Sullivan says that tribal officials had put together a business plan before they bought the property. But now that they have it and appreciate the amount of time and labor needed to restore the garden, they've put the plan aside. How long? Hinkley says his initial figure was and still is three years, but he won't be surprised if, at the end of that time, he calls for three years more.

He himself is officially a very part-time employee, but he works a lot of extra time. His gardener from the past, Celia Pedersen — working nearby with her chocolate Lab, Corbie — is the head gardener for the restoration project. Volunteers come in every other Saturday to take tours, eat lunch, and help weed. Still, this is going to take a while.

Knowing that, Hinkley says, he must "not go too crazy." He's taking the process one overgrown bed at a time. He looks at an overgrown bed right in front of the house in which he used to live — vacant for years, the house is being renovated; as Hinkley speaks, a worker is tearing off a rotted deck — and keeps going. "You just have to walk past," he says.

And when he does tackle a bed, he has to be careful. He looks across a crowded bed. "I could kill it," he says. "But there are some good plants in there."

It takes a while to figure out what's hidden among the weeds. Originally, the plants sported blue ID tags. But Burpee sent teams of rakers through the beds, and the rakes scraped the tags off. "The compost holds literally thousands of blue tags," he says. Fortunately, he and his partner had mapped the garden well enough to know just about where plants should be.

Hinkley may have a big-picture view of the restoration project, but he has a very particular view of each plant. A plant has more than its taxonomic identity, its Latin genus and species names; it also has a backstory.

He points to one low plant now marked by a low bamboo wicket. "This is incredibly rare," he says, stooping to the whorl of 5 variegated leaves. It belongs to the species Paris luqanensis, and Hinkley found it in an old-growth forest at fairly high altitude in far northeastern Nepal. "They were all removed" from the garden, he says. "This one was left. Now," he says, indicating a smaller version partly hidden by the leaves of a taller plant a foot or so away, "there's this seedling."

The genus name, "'Paris,' means equal," he explains, "referring to its equality of floral parts — petals, sepals, carpels, all in equal number.. When Robert and I married last year, all of our guests were given a flower of Paris polyphylla during the ceremony."

Time has passed since Hinkley and Jones started planting things at Heronswood. Hinkley himself is graying. The firs and hemlocks have grown a lot taller than they were when he started. A garden at any stage is "finite," he says. Even if the place hadn't been neglected, he would have had to change things after 25 years.

Hinkley is still collecting. That's just who he is, he explains. But he says he doesn't just scoop up every plant he can find. He thinks there's value in collecting "plants that are in peril." In peril from rapid Asian development? "In China, you can't believe" the speed at which habitat is being destroyed.

He points to a small magnolia tree, Magnolia wilsoni , with some big white blossoms still clinging to its branches. The tree wasn't watered or pruned after Burpee lost interest in the property. "It will have to come out," Hinkley says, "but I have another one in a pot ready to go in." He collected the new tree from China's southwesternmost province,Yunnan, in 1998.

For some reason, plants from distant places have always done well here. He points to a sapling with a slender, winding trunk and waxy leaves. It's a native of Vietnam, he says, but it "came through the winter. It wouldn't have survived at my place in Indianola." This "site is very forgiving," Hinkley says. The soil is good. The water table is high. And he figures that the over-story moderates winter temperatures.

Nearby, sunlight, filtered by morning clouds and tree branches, gleams off the surface of a pond. The pond looks fine in winter and early spring, Hinkley says, but not so nice in summer, when it dries up, leaving a large bowl of dry mud. When the nursery was going, he says, water — from a well drilled on the property — ran downhill and kept the pond full.

There's no plan for a new nursery yet, but there may be one. So far, people come to the site a few times each year when the grounds are opened — most recently for a May 17 plant sale featuring an array of local nursries — plus tours. (More openings are scheduled for July 12 and September 6.) Sooner or later, the place will have to start paying more of its way. "A garden is a black hole" for money, Hinkley says.

Sullivan envisions tribal craftsmen working and teaching at Heronswood, an educational facility for tribal members, a place for other people to learn about the tribe.

Hinkley says that learning is already starting to happen. Tribal and non-tribal people have lived next to each other for decades in this area without interacting, he says. He, personally, had no contact with the tribe. For that matter, he and his partner collected Northwest Coast art for years without understanding the worldview behind the art. Now, tribal and non-tribal members are working together on the foundation board, of which he's a member. At the May 17 plant sale, when Heronswood was full of gardeners from all over the region, tribal members were there, singing in scheduled performances and selling clam chowder all day.

So the garden will have a new focus. It may look a bit different, too. A lot of the visitors who have showed up at that plant sale and other occasions have been seeing Heronswood for the first time, Hinkley says. They're not looking for their image of what used to be. Neither is Hinkley.

"I'm not interested in building a shrine to the past," he says. "I hope it will be better."

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