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Pilgrimage to Mecca: A place for gardeners to visit and dream

Seeds woman Renee Shepard of Santa Cruz reaches out for a closer look at a lily in bloom at Heronswood Nursery.
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When it comes to centers of worship, Catholics have the Vatican, Muslims have Mecca, Mormons have the tabernacle in Salt Lake City, and western gardeners have Heronswood Nursery in Kingston, Wash.

When I made that comparison to Dan Hinkley, who co-founded the nursery 15 years ago along with his partner, Robert L. Jones, he actually blushed and said something like, “Well, I don’t know if you should say that …”

But avid gardeners who visit the site on the Kitsap Peninsula near Seattle come away rolling their eyes like they’ve had a religious experience, clutching the nursery’s elaborate $5 catalog like a holy tract. And those who work at the 71/2- acre nursery – where botanical Latin is the language of choice – are proud to call themselves “The Heronistas.”



Even the Creator of all things has smiled on the enterprise with weather that very closely approximates that of the British Isles. That means that it’s not unusual to find spring and summer perennials blooming side by side, with blossoms lasting for a long time.

We have specialty nurseries in our area, such as Rodger Rollings’ You Bet Farms and Carolyn Singer’s Foothill Cottage Gardens that offer a goodly number of unusual plants, and it’s a wonderful experience to browse their selections. But to visit Heronswood is to multiply that experience by 50. Or maybe more.




Rain was forecast for the day, but instead we had what Seattle weathermen call “scattered sun breaks” when seven bus loads of garden writers descended upon Heronswood earlier this month. While members of the Garden Writers Association are not normally a pushy bunch, there seemed to be an urgency to be among the first ones down the long gravel driveway and onto the twisting paths that wind through a botanical wonderland of flowers, foliage, fountains and statuary.

The “Heronistas” (including Hinkley and Jones) were there to help, practically spinning in their tracks to answer questions like, “Was this from seed collected in China?” (Hinkley is among those botanists who routinely explore Tiger Leaping Gorge in China and Zhongdian in Tibet in search of seeds from rare plants) or “Will this survive in region four?” or “Will it take full afternoon sun?”

There were so many cameras in action the sound of the shutters sounded like a mating call of some exotic insect.

And it was interesting to hear the different pronunciation of unfamiliar names like Arisaema candidissimum from western China, which the catalog describes as such: “In a genus of oddly beautiful and strangely wonderful is this most elegant of all, with pink and white striped spathes held above bold trifoliate and glossy foliage, forming large colonies in a relatively short period of time. This species is a notorious late riser, often not in blossom for us until early July. Note its place carefully in the semi-shaded garden.”

Another entry in the conifer section of the catalog shows Hinkley’s amusement with the plant world in describing a tree called Dacrycarpus dacrydiodes: “As it has doubled in size since I first brought this back, I am sure that it is alive. However, if there was ever a plant that look perpetually dead, but still wasn’t, it is this tree (from New Zealand’s North Island). Ferny foliage in shades of plum, russet and compost are held along upright stems.”

There’s a special symbol printed next to “new or returning” plants in the catalog, which Hinkley explains: “Though I have always felt that you should spend as much time reading the catalog as I spend writing it, I have taken pity. You will now have extra time on your hands. Go weed your garden.”

It should be noted that the 256-page catalog contains no photographs, but it is entirely written by Hinkley. He taught horticulture at Edmond’s Community College and is also the author of several books including his latest, “The Explorer’s Garden: Rare and Unusual Perennials.”

Additionally, he’s appeared on “Martha Stewart Living” as a gardening consultant, and has been featured in The New York Times Magazine and numerous garden publications. He’s finishing up a book about the garden called “Making Heronswood.”

His plant knowledge and self-effacing sense of humor have also made him a favorite on the talk circuit (he does about 50 a year). At a garden writer’s meeting several years ago in San Francisco, he told his awe-struck audience about making the first planting at Heronswood, “and then strolling up and down practicing a British accent. But then the plants started dying, and I found I had a lot to learn about them.”

Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, Master Gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.


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