Saturday, 26 July 2014

Heronswood - one of America's top woodland gardens - sailing back into the limelight with Dan Hinkley at the helm

Heronswood Nursery, founded in 1987 by Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones
Gardeners and plant lovers the world over will have heard of both Dan Hinkley and Heronswood Garden. Hinkley enjoys rock-star status in the gardening world and is recognised as one of the greatest American plantsmen and explorers, whilst his former nursery, Heronswood, located on the Kitsap Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, once drew gardeners from all over the world in search of rare and unusual plants. But since the turn of the century it has been at the heart of a drama that would make good prime-time soap viewing.  
The potager at Heronswood with its instantly recognisable sculpted hornbeam arches
Hinkley founded Heronswood in 1987 with partner, Robert Jones and it was their boundless enthusiasm and his determination to travel the world in search of rare and interesting plants that soon made the nursery a veritable horticultural mecca for plant enthusiasts. He travelled frequently to India, China, Nepal, Japan and Vietnam in search of plants that would grow in the United States. And, once home, he applied his considerable skills to propagating and promoting unusual plants for connoisseurs. His plant lists are still spoken about in revered tones - no pictures, no English names and definitely not for the feint-hearted - part of the charm of these catalogues was Dan's ability to describe the circumstances in which plants had been found.

Dan Hinkley
Heronswood is a woodland garden, located in paradise, so it came as something of a surprise to American horticultural circles that Pennsylvania-based seed giant W. Atlee Burpee came stalking and then acquired the property in 2000, having sweet-talked Hinkley and Jones to stay on to manage their baby. I have read many of the newspaper cuttings relating to this period and it is not a pretty story - it seems that Burpee was no stranger to acquisitions that looked like promising cash cows - but this one was different. This garden was a labour of love, created by a man with a mission, where plants were nurtured, catalogued and treated with respect. Plants flourished under Dan's care, but spread sheet supremos had little understanding of what this garden was about and in 2006, to the horror of horticulturalists all over the world, Heronswood closed its doors to the outside world. 

In the wilderness years Heronswood declined and although the demise of this great garden provided good copy for newspaper editors, the reality was that it became overgrown and under-loved until it was finally sold at auction to local Native Americans - The Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe - in the summer of 2012. The Tribe is firmly committed to restoring the garden and work is already well underway, with a team of volunteers working under the stewardship of Dan Hinkley, who sits on the steering committee comprised of tribal leaders, plant experts and committed garden supporters.
Two years later, Heronswood is beginning to appear back on the map and has opened its doors to groups of visitors throughout the season and for its famous plant sales. Hearts had fluttered anxiously during the years the garden was closed as loyal supporters feared that this prime tract of land would be sold off as a golf course, or as a prime plot for more condos. But the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe that purchased this 15-acre site some 25 miles northwest of Seattle is firmly committed to restoring Heronswood. 
I was lucky enough to visit Heronswood during a recent visit to the Pacific Northwest and was also introduced to Dan Hinkley. He is a charming man, who cannot resist stopping to weed along the way and he's happy to tell you that even though the garden is still a long way from where it was when it was first sold, real progress is being made in its restoration and revival. Much of it is woodland, but visitors will gasp when they realise how many rare and unusual plants there are, hiding in the undergrowth.
Water feature at Heronswood by Lewis and Little
You need to keep your eyes open to make sure that you don't miss anything here. There are plants at every level and many underfoot, so you must watch where you walk. Mingled in with the tantalising array of plants are several water features created by local artists David Lewis and George Little (above and left) and when you emerge from the dense woodland, you find yourself in what appears to be a private garden, surrounding a house. It is here you'll find the much-photographed potager, with its sculpted hornbeam arches (above) and mixed borders. Visitors will be well aware that this is a work in progress again even though the garden was once considered to be one of the greatest in America. 
If you are lucky enough to live in the area and want to visit Heronswood, check the website to see when open days and plant sales are. In my next post, I will take readers on a tour of Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones' own garden, Windcliff.

10 comments:

  1. That is an upbeat story about the gardens coming back and I hope they are nurtured for decades to come and that Dan Hinkley remains involved with his baby (the gardens)

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  2. So lucky to have been able to visit, both Heronswood and Dan Hinkleys own garden recently. This post was a delight, and a teaser. And so looking forward to the next one...

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  3. Great synopsis of the soap opera behind Heronswood. It was a treat to see you again at the recent Fling, Charlotte. Can't wait to read more of your North America musings.

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    1. If it wasn't for the Fling, we wouldn't have got to Heronswood, so an added bonus for us globe-trotting Brits! Great to meet you too and already looking forward to Toronto.

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  4. I have to admit although I've heard of Heronswood, I knew nothing of its history. This is another perfect example of corporate giants taking over and ruining a smaller enterprise. I'm so glad that it is being restored--what a beautiful garden! Thank you for such an interesting and informative post, Charlotte. So nice to meet you at the Fling; I wish we could have talked more--maybe next Fling! Looks like you and Victoria and Michelle made the most of your trip over the pond; looking forward to reading about the rest of your adventures.

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    1. Great to meet you too - hope that you're going to be in Toronto. Am already planning all my side trips to coincide with Toronto - it's a real incentive coming from so far away.

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  5. Thanks for this interesting update! I hadn't read about any of the latest unfoldings, but glad to read about them here. Enjoyed sharing time with you at the Fling.

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    1. Watch this space and you'll see Dan's own garden here. Great to see you in Portland and hope to see more of you in Toronto.

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  6. Really enjoyed learning about Heronswood, Charlotte. I had heard about the garden and knew that Dan Hinkley was connected to it in some way but didn't understand the full history so thanks for the insight. Looking forward to reading some of your other American posts. Helen (gardener)

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  7. My last visit to Heronswood was the last year it was still in the clutches of Ball Horticulture, quite dispiriting. I have been following their efforts and was so glad to see Dan become involved again and I look forward to visiting on my next journey to the PNW.

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