Discover Bainbridge Island

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

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  • Debbi Brainerd with a class at IslandWood, a nonprofit offering programs for urban kids as well as teachers and families.

    Bainbridge Island

    Emily Nathan

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Bainbridge also has a tradition of sharing its beauty with people who don't live here. Although he made his fortune in timber, Prentice Bloedel loved the forest for more than its utilitarian value. In 1951, he bought a 67-acre wooded estate near the north end of Bainbridge Island. On it he created a series of gardens, lakes, and streams, with paths winding among the property's meadows and native trees. Thirty years ago, he shared his good fortune by opening Bloedel Reserve to the public. It's been a Northwest favorite ever since.

Paul and Debbi Brainerd are more recent island philanthropists. A few years after selling Aldus Corporation to Adobe Systems, the couple found 9 acres on Bainbridge, on which they eventually built their home; they soon learned that Port Blakely Tree Farms was selling a large tract of land nearby. Debbi realized that it could become conventional residential property ― or something much more significant.

"My interest has always been in supporting kids from underserved populations," she said. "A couple of weeks after I saw the Port Blakely property, I woke up with a vision: I felt we should turn that piece of that land into an outdoor education center to teach kids about natural cultural history of Puget Sound."

Debbi spent a year and a half talking with educators all over the country. She learned from a Pew Charitable Trust study that when you take kids out of the classroom, their scores go up in every discipline. "It made sense to me," she said. "When I was a kid, I loved school projects where I could use my hands rather than read a textbook. Kids need to be engaged with all their senses."

The Brainerds ended up buying 255 acres of choice wildland and donating it to a nonprofit called IslandWood. Though it also offers programs for teachers and families, its core curriculum is a four-day school program for students from some tough urban neighborhoods. IslandWood reaches them with its own blend of uniquely talented people: instructors, artists and scientists in residence, naturalists, and volunteers.

Deb Fenwick is one of the volunteers. Cofounder of the center's organic garden and greenhouse, she says that "one of our goals is to help make the connection between the garden, the plate, the compost pile, and the garden again.

"It's a hands-on place. Students smell the scents, feel the textures, and taste vegetables they're not usually exposed to. They also make connections between themselves and others: They harvest what others have planted, and they plant what future classes will harvest. That's a potent object lesson."

Thanks to volunteers like Fenwick and philanthropists like the Brainerds, to nursery owners like Terri Stanley and Junkoh Harui, and to passionate amateurs like Linda Cochran, this is a golden age of gardening on Bainbridge Island. But perhaps it was fated to happen. When British explorer George Vancouver was sailing past Port Madison, just north of the island, in 1792, he wrote in his journal that "the serenity of the climate, the innumerable pleasing landscapes, and the abundant fertility … require only … the industry of man … to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined."

Vancouver was a better prophet than he knew.

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