|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Taste||Now & Then|
WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JACQUELINE KOCH
The surest bet is e-mail, and you'll get back a missive sent in the middle of the night from an airport in Dublin or perhaps Chicago. But don't expect the e-mail to be fully coherent, for even though Hinkley writes books, magazine articles and every word of the nursery's acclaimed catalog, he is no doubt beat because he's just finished trekking, lecturing or painstakingly washing seed to mail back home. And he may well be confused about what time zone he's in, since he has already tramped back and forth to Europe and Asia several times this year, and criss-crosses the country most months.
Hinkley doesn't just grow and sell plants; he tracks them down, collects them from the far corners of the globe, and studies them with the intensity of the student and professor he once was and the plant nerd he remains.
Now Hinkley goes forth from his woodland garden to explore places with rainfall patterns and elevations similar to our own, whether it's a beach in Chile or a mountainside in China. He searches for plants that, because of their exotic looks, hardiness or disease resistance, will enrich or refine the gene pool of the nearly 10,000 species, varieties or clones he already grows at Heronswood.
Hinkley has combined his sense of wonder about plants growing in their native habitats with his horticultural knowledge to create a five-acre extravaganza of a garden that is both laboratory and showcase for the plants he collects. When in 1985 Hinkley and partner Robert Jones bought property near Kingston, on the Kitsap Peninsula a short ferry ride north of Seattle, they intended to start a little nursery to help finance the garden Hinkley was hankering for. At the time, Jones was working as a Seattle architect and Hinkley was teaching horticulture at Edmonds Community College.
"Robert is a self-admitted pathetic plantsman," says Hinkley. "He thinks spatially, I think botanically." Jones designed the structures and spaces; Hinkley planted them. Jones handled the business.
The result is the mecca known as Heronswood Nursery. Offices for the staff, hoop houses holding rows and rows of plants with unpronounceable names, fabulous gardens, and Jones and Hinkley's much-remodeled rambler all co-exist on the acreage, showing clearly that Heronswood has become something far more than Hinkley ever intended.
As you walk through the gardens and thousands of people do each year you see dozens and dozens of plants that look kind of like something else you've seen before, but not quite. These are new, sought-after colors and cultivars, all artfully combined and beautifully grown in an explosion of texture, fragrance and blossom that is sensuous, magical and nearly overwhelming on a warm day when the roses are in bloom.
As Hinkley tells it, despite the vast number of plants he has amassed, he is doomed to wander the world in search of more. When he finds a plant, his first reaction is to wonder about its relatives. What are their natural habitats? Might this green-leafed plant have a cousin with variegated leaves? He itches to collect seed from each and every kinsman; he feels compelled to carry home the seed, to grow it, test it, perhaps market it.
How did a Michigan farm boy, starry-eyed about the mild climate of the Northwest, become the world's foremost plant explorer? How did a student who lived in the Arboretum's stone cottage while earning his master's degree at the University of Washington become one of the richest nurserymen on Earth in a little over a decade? How did one man, working in an obscure corner of the country, help make the Northwest the envy of the gardening world?
HINKLEY EXPLAINS he ended up in the Northwest because he was simply part of the great westerly migration of Lutherans. As for how he became the ultimate plant expert, he says modestly that he has a facility for pronouncing and remembering their names. Not that such an ability should be underestimated in the gardening world, where Latin trinomials trip up many a gardener.
And when you're hanging on the side of a crevasse peering at a plant you've never seen before, it is imperative to be intimately acquainted with the world's known flora. When each year you write a 250-page catalog packed with descriptions of thousands of different plants a catalog that has become a reference volume for tens of thousands of gardeners a proficiency for plant names is vital. What Hinkley doesn't care to admit is how instrumental he has been in bringing the Northwest to the gardening world's attention. So much so that Garden Design magazine is set to name Seattle one of America's three most exciting gardening cities. The Garden Conservancy, the American Horticultural Society and the Garden Writers of America all held national conferences in Seattle last summer.
Rosie Atkins, longtime editor of the award-winning magazine Gardens Illustrated, describes Hinkley as "the thinking gardener's idol." Famed British plant explorer Roy Lancaster says of Hinkley, "He is blessed with a keen eye for a good garden plant that is growing in the wild. But having a keen eye isn't enough you also have to get the seed back, propagate it and, most difficult of all, introduce it to the gardening public. Many plant explorers have one of those four skills; Dan has all of them in abundance."
By the late 1990s the enterprise had burgeoned into something Hinkley no longer liked. "Robert and I felt suffocated it had lost its sparkle and fun," he says. "The garden became a showcase, a monkey on our backs." Burpee bought a first-class nursery with a mailing list that reads like the horticultural Who's Who of the Western world and a catalog that offers the most comprehensive array of unusual trees, shrubs, vines and perennials in America.
When you see Hinkley leading a tour at Heronswood, pointing out the stupendously tall lily relative Cardiocrinum gigantium in full, fragrant bloom, or bending to push aside a leaf to reveal the tiny flowers on a precious Japanese hepatica, it is clear he treasures each inch of the place. Nevertheless, Jones and Hinkley are looking forward to moving to a private garden and new house Jones has designed at Windcliff, their new property high on a bluff a few miles away. Here they'll have plenty of room for the parade of international horticulturists who stay with them, for the two are endlessly hospitable. The new house will have guest quarters and a kitchen large enough to accommodate Hinkley's other love, cooking. Jones and Hinkley will drive to work every day like other people, rather than step outside their front door into the fracas.
And of course, Hinkley is hard at work planning and planting a garden at Windcliff, where he has five mostly empty acres for a collection of his favorite trees. He describes the property's southern exposure as "hot and bakey," ideal for growing treasures from Tasmania, New Zealand and South Africa. So far, he is planting swathes of groundcovers, shrubs and ornamental grasses in hopes of making a garden he can care for himself. Most of all, Windcliff will never become a public garden. "I'm getting interested again, and appreciating the process of planting and being patient," says Hinkley. "I'm excited about making a beautiful space for me and for my friends."
LATELY, HINKLEY seems to have crossed from the plant world into popular consciousness, including a gush from his friend Martha Stewart in her magazine: "He is strong, he is fun to be with and yes I love him." His garden is discussed in a recent issue of House and Garden, and he was profiled in The New York Times magazine a couple of years ago. In that article, Hinkley was described as "bearded and balding," and shown looking a bit burly in a T-shirt and suspenders. Perhaps it was the description that launched Hinkley's new, sleeker look. His head and face are neatly shaved; he's lost weight, and while his garb in the garden remains boots, shorts and a belt wide enough to hold a walkie-talkie, his public outfits of flannel shirts and jeans have been replaced by sport coats, turtlenecks and slacks.
When he sleeps in a tent in the mountains of Nepal for a month, he spends the first 10 days worrying about e-mails and lattes, but then he gets into life as day-to-day, hour-by-hour progress. "I'm kind of an observer, and that grounds me," says Hinkley, who fears the life he has been living might be perceived as that of a dilettante.
What he really wants to do is study plants in greater detail. He can see going back to teaching full time, for at heart Hinkley remains an educator, and derives the most pleasure from what he sees on expeditions rather than what he gathers. He treads lightly, leaving the plants where they stand, usually collecting only seed, and not too much of that. Back home, he tries to grow these plants in ideal conditions, encouraging, observing, then perhaps writing about and selling the plant.
It isn't always easy being in the limelight, but Hinkley manages to maintain the mild manner and self-deprecating humor that endear him to the eager audiences who listen to his hundreds of lectures each year. This past February, Heronswood's display garden at the Flower and Garden Show earned nary a ribbon. Rather than the expected cultivated garden, Hinkley and Jones created a rough hillside in China, a welter of native plants tangled around ruins and pathways, realistic down to the piles of dung along the trail (fashioned by Jones out of brownie dough). Hinkley, whose earlier gardens won prizes and adulation, laughs and shakes his head over the many less-than-complimentary comments he heard while working the show, including the shrill, "Who is responsible for this mess?" The remark has become a standard line around Heronswood whenever anything is out of place, in memory of the display garden the public wasn't quite ready for.
BUT ENOUGH about biodiversity. Will Hinkley dish about his friend Martha? He's afraid it sounds corny if he says he enjoys spending time with her, but what started as a business relationship (he writes for her magazine and appears on her television show) has turned into a friendship. There is the story of how Jones and Hinkley were away hiking in the San Juan Islands one day when they got a cellphone call from Connie saying the diva herself was hovering over Heronswood in a helicopter, asking permission to land on the lawn. Connie, always the lion at the gate, famously asked Martha if she had an appointment.
Since then, Jones and Hinkley have spent weekends at Stewart's Maine estate, where hikes starts at 6 a.m. Afternoons include private yoga lessons, antiquing or perhaps a reading by crime writer Dominick Dunne, who was a guest during Hinkley's last visit. Hinkley, who turns 50 next year, runs on caffeine, and accomplishes more in a week than most of us dream of in a year, "remains in awe of her energy."
Such a life of hobnobbing with celebrities and hiking in the hills of Nepal may sound glamorous. Being the first to recognize and retrieve a previously unseen plant must bring satisfaction. But Hinkley spends much of his time in long hours of travel with layovers in distant airports. He lives in primitive conditions for weeks at a time, hikes at high elevations and eats weird food. There is nothing easy about collecting plants or making gardens; like any other art or mad pursuit, both involve waste and false starts.
So Hinkley ran across the glacier-fed creek and found the plant growing between two hefty alder roots. He dug frantically, imagining the hot breath of bears on his neck. Jones yelled out a warning, so Hinkley gave up on finding the plant's rhizome, accidentally broke off a stem, grabbed it and ran wildly back across the creek, scrambling up the bank to safety. Back at his hotel, he took photos to prove his find, prepared cuttings and put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Next morning he found the cuttings had frozen solid, turning to mush by the time they thawed. Heartbreak.
Unable to forget the plant, he flew back to Juneau this past summer, heading straight to the creek from the airport. He was greeted by more bears and salmon, but only a gaping hole where the plant had grown. Had a bear grubbed it out, or another wily plantsman beat him to it? Such is the life of a plant collector.
So if you do have what Hinkley's looking for, just leave the information with Connie.
Valerie Easton is manager at the Miller Horticultural Library. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer living on Whidbey Island.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Taste||Now & Then|