What can you say about a garden that you visited once and loved? That it was beautiful? That the extent of the exotic and the unusual was beyond that of any other private garden you’ve seen? That it was so magically and artistically arranged in its setting that anyone easily could be swept up in its spell? That once you entered it, you didn’t want to leave?
I am in the midst of my first visit to Heronswood, my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, my first encounter with spring in a climate with which I am unfamiliar. I have been sent here for work, as an employee of W. Atlee Burpee Company. Of course, I had heard the legends about the place, about the horticulture-friendly climate of the Pacific Northwest and the beauty of the Kitsap peninsula, about Seattle and its “cool vibe” and cool weather and its coffee. You get an image in your mind from such talk. Now, three days into my visit, I’m here to tell you – it is all true!
You can’t miss the really, really tall conifers – mostly native Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and some western cedar (Thuja plicata) – that constitute the woods along the road. Then there is the immenseness of scale of the surrounding region, with Alp-like snow-capped rugged mountains to the west and east, the Puget Sound between us and Seattle, the greenness of the place already, in early April. The cool, damp climate makes an East Coast guy like me wonder how all those different species I am encountering are in leaf so early, when just this morning it was freezing, and so far it hasn’t felt like the temperature has broken 50 degrees.
Actually, the weather when I landed in Seattle two days ago was just like I left it that morning, three thousand miles to the east, at Newark Liberty Airport – gray and chilly. But after a quick (if bracing) jaunt around the waterfront sites and Pike Street Market, stopping to photograph Mahonias in bloom, Acer palmatum cultivars already leafing out in numerous city planter boxes, and other “only in the Pacific Northwest” oddities I couldn’t quite identify by species, my coworker Dave Smicker (a seasoned visitor to these parts – this is his fourth tour of duty since last summer) steers the car to the ferry to Bainbridge Island. That had to be the best ferry ride I’d ever taken – smooth as glass, the vessel was very nicely maintained (nice seats!), and the weather held. Only after we land and start driving toward Kingston does it start to cloud up again, and begin to drizzle.
It is not too long before we arrive at the unassuming gate to Heronswood. It is pouring now as I get settled in. Dave takes me on a tour to get me oriented. Umbrellas in open mode, we dash puddles and mud, and enter the cathedral.
I had been forewarned by George Ball that the “verticality” of the place was amazing. Now I think I know what he meant. The Doug-firs dictate the setting – the straight-up-to-the-sky trunks are thick, corky gray-brown columns, and the shade from their evergreen branches way, way up provides a very high ceiling that darkens portions of the garden, especially under this leaden sky. But you can’t miss the floor as you enter – the sixty-plus mounded island beds are nearly all carpeted in color right now. Along the paths ubiquitous gold and green moss covers the edges. Patches of namesake Hellebores looking pretty close to perfect even if a bit past prime bloom time, stocky trilliums, lots and lots of Anemone and Erythronium, the prostrate Ribes and other woody groundcovers I have little if any familiarity with – all are in bloom. Even if the species are exotic, the effect immediately brings to mind the woodland gardens back home. But why are these Dicentra and beautiful blue Corydalis fully out in ferny leaf and in bloom in early April? Wow.
At eye level there are shrubs heralding spring. The witch hazel relatives with which I am more familiar – the dangling chains of subtle cream beads on various gangly Stachyurus (like ‘Magpie’), the very short soft primrose yellow bells of the more structurally refined Corylopsis ‘Winterthur’ and C. glabrescens gotoana (two other early bloomers but with its mildy-sweet fragrance), various early rhododendrons. They stand out even in the rain and under all that coniferous shade.
Late yesterday the sun started to peak out from behind the clouds. I decide to explore the landscape around the Heron House. There seems to be a different style of garden at every turn. Formality takes over, with hornbeam arches (what a sight – the bare silver stems spiked with bud-tipped spurs still glistening with raindrops) around the bog garden adjacent to the house; a rather substantial box-outlined “Potager” further west; a Magnolia ‘Iolanthe’ in full bloom to the south; the extraordinarily beautiful trunks of well-established specimens of Stewartia pseudocamellia and Acer griseum in the back, a glowing golden semicircle of Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Lutea’ fronted by just-emerging patches of Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ to the northeast. White daffodils scattered strategically near the front door, guarded by the mossy-trunked contortions of the Harry Lauder’s Walkingstick and the stout, leafless stems of a dormant Aralia elata (said to be ‘Variegata’ when in leaf). Ever-present moss carpeting trunks and dripping from branches throughout Heronswood reminds me that I’m in that enchanted temperate rainforest.
The woodland across the driveway beckons me back. Huge, shrub-like tree peonies are starting to leaf out fringy-red at the tips of their bare stems. A large specimen of Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’ reminds me of very large versions of the hardier saucer magnolias that hadn’t really opened yet back home. Aptly named, it takes center stage right now. Camellias are in bloom here and there. Scattered rhododendrons are in colors I don’t often see, species only now I am learning. Look at that one with the big red trusses; how about that deep purple R. recurvoides? Hydrangea macrophylla (at least fifty selections) and H. serrata (nine selections) are just leafing out at the tips; the lanky curved H. aspera types (twelve selections, give or take), taller than me, are all pretty dormant still – but look at those H. anomala petiolaris selections climbing the big tree trunks, reaching for the sky! Here and there, they are already in full leaf, new growth more like late May back home! It’s all so out of sequence, so unlike the spring seasons I have known. Can you imagine what this place looks like in May when most of the forty different Viburnum must be at their peak? Or June and July when the hydrangeas bloom? I hope the boss sends me back.