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Originally published Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 7:06 PM

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Northwest Living

Whidbey Island Vegetable Garden Tour ends with a party

This magical farmstead north of Seattle encourages visitors to linger, ripe with vegetables, flowers and herbs. The pastures hold plush little donkeys and contented sheep. Guests can relax in a gazebo overlooking the pond, stroll along double borders packed with roses, clematis and artichokes, or snack on cherry tomatoes right off the vine.

Tour the veggies, feed the kids

Vegissimo, the second annual Whidbey Island Vegetable Garden Tour, will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7, and includes nine gardens on the south end of the island. An evening party at Shirley and Alf Collins' garden will follow the tour. Cost for the tour is $15 per person (children under 18 are free); $35 for the tour and party.

The tour benefits Whidbey Island Nourishes, an organization devoted to feeding young people in need on South Whidbey Island.

Tickets and maps are available in Seattle at Ravenna Gardens in the University Village, and on Whidbey Island at Moonraker Books in Langley, Bayview Farm and Garden, Cultus Bay Nursery in Clinton, or at www.whidbeyislandnourishes.org.

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photographed by Mike Siegel

THIS YEAR'S Whidbey Island vegetable tour culminates with a garden party at Shirley and Alf Collins' place, and that's because this magical farmstead encourages you to linger. Verdant with vegetables, flowers and herbs, the pastures hold plush little donkeys and contented sheep. Guests can relax in a gazebo overlooking the pond, stroll along double borders packed with roses, clematis and artichokes, or snack on cherry tomatoes right off the vine.

It was only four years ago that this industrious pair set in to make a little farmstead with a distinctly European flair. Shirley, founder of the kitchen shop Sur La Table, and her husband, Alf, former Seattle Times columnist, used to spend weekends at their 500-square-foot beach cabin. A few years ago they moved up the hill to a roomy stucco house on 5 ½ acres. "We'd never thought about a farm, but we stayed at one in France and fell in love," explains Shirley of their move from beach to barnyard.

They started by ripping out rhododendrons and planting flowering vines, perennials and drifts of narcissus and copper-colored day lilies. Now herbs grow among the flowers, rhubarb and silvery artichokes add structure, and colorful kale trims the pathways. Favorite plants like purple heuchera, leatherleaf viburnum, 'Francesca' primroses and spires of foxglove run through the beds for a casual, tumbled look that belies the artistry in orchestrating and maintaining such complex borders.

And then you get to the raised vegetable beds, edged in espaliered pear trees and columnar apples. Fava beans are a staple here, as are red and black currants, heirloom lettuces, arugula, brassicas and beets. There's a cold frame so the Collinses can harvest lettuces, parsley and thyme year-round, and a greenhouse to start seeds and shelter hanging pots of upside-down tomato vines.

A focal point of the garden, overlooked by terraces and a gazebo, is the huge new pond and waterfall. Vine maple and dogwood grow around the water, and a hillside of Mexican feather grass shimmers with every breeze. Shirley has planted more than a thousand heathers and grasses in this part of the garden. "I made a lot of mistakes," she says. ... "We didn't have a plan ... we just kept building. What I did right was to plant these maples and grasses."

A brood of 35 chickens adds to the pastoral nature of the place. Two miniature donkeys protect four woolly Corriedale sheep by trumpeting and stomping if any coyotes dare show themselves along the edge of the nearby woods.

After four years of farming, the enchantment hasn't worn off for the Collinses. "I love it, it's what I do every day," says Shirley. "I have all this work to do ... aren't I lucky?"

The Collins garden is one of nine on this year's tour; highlights include a glass artist's creative potager, the productive food-bank garden at the Good Cheer charity, and a small family farm and winery on a historic homestead overlooking Useless Bay.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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