Discover Bainbridge Island

On an island near Seattle, meet the most passionate gardeners in the world

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Take the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island and you'll see, off the bow, the snow-covered Olympic Mountains rising behind the firs, hemlocks, and cedars that cloak Bainbridge in green.

It's a view that hasn't changed much since the late 1800s, when the island's Port Blakely mill was the world's largest. The timber industry attracted labor, cleared land for truck farms, and gave the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry run its raison d'être. Some of the mill's original sawyers, fellers, and buckers, many of them Japanese, stayed on to become the island's founding families.

Seattleites came too, at first just to build summer cabins and weekend places. But the island's gentle climate and good schools made them wonder, Why go back? As permanent residents, they've made bigger and better gardens than the ones they left behind.

"Gardening is different on the island," observes Terri Stanley, owner of a nursery called Mesogeo Greenhouse. "In Seattle, they have to make a big impact in a small space. Here, it's more open; there's room for gardens to play out."

Bainbridge gardeners find inspiration at the island's nurseries and garden design stores, some of which have a nationwide following. Sculptors George Little and David Lewis are famous for their dripping fountain columns and gigantic concrete pomegranates, while Gardenzilla's Geoff and Candace Daigle are known for Godzilla-size garden containers made from iron (nearly immovable) or fiberglass (more manageable). Mesogeo Greenhouse specializes in Mediterranean and tropical gardens, and Bay Hay and Feed sells a huge array of garden tools, gear, and clothing, and is the best feed store you'll ever visit. But of all the island garden stops, it's Bainbridge Gardens where the roots stretch deepest.

Now owned by Junkoh Harui, the nursery was started by his father, Zenhichi, and great-uncle Zenmatsu Seko. When you visit, you'll see dozens of Japanese red pines ― the largest collection in Washington state. In 1942, they were saplings in pots when Zenhichi Harui learned that all of Bainbridge's Japanese residents were to be forced off the island under World War II's Civilian Exclusion Order. Harui mulched the pots before he left. The unattended red pines took root and thrived: a metaphor for Bainbridge's Japanese community itself.

The combination of great nurseries, designers, and gardeners is fertile anywhere. But on an island, the effect is intensified, and on Bainbridge, the combination has reached critical mass. The island has developed its own aesthetic ― Stanley sees a fair amount of romantic influence in it ― and people continue to come.

"They want a rural lifestyle," says real estate broker Eve Leonard, "but they want urban access too. Here, you get both. The ferry drops you in downtown Seattle, where you walk or catch a cab anywhere. It's the urban life ― but you don't live there."

And although Bainbridge's popularity has pushed its median housing price above a half-million dollars, people at both ends of the economic spectrum still find ways to call it home. One young nurseryman, for example, patches together a rented room, a day job in a garden center, and a night job as a waiter to make it work. "Whatever it takes," he says, shrugging.

"I love this place."

 

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