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

If you were going to choose one place in the West where people live to garden, Bainbridge Island would be it. The 32-square-mile island in Puget Sound is just a 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle, but a world away in spirit.

Here is an entire community of people who have organized their lives to get their hands dirty: The Boeing senior manager who cultivates huckleberries for pie, the lawyer who traded dockets for a garden supply company, and the Nordstrom exec who weeds lavender for his weekend gig as co-owner of Frog Rock Lavender Farm.

As some Bainbridge residents describe it, the island’s love for gardening almost blindsided them. Linda Cochran was a lawyer when she arrived here. She found herself spending more and more time in the garden and, finally, walked away from her career.

For a while she ran a well-regarded nursery called Froggy Bottom, then realized that was a sidetrack too. Now she maintains one of the most beautiful private gardens anywhere. “I’m just a passionate amateur gardener,” she admits, “so that’s what I do now.”

Vital stats
32 sq. mi.

People: 22,200 (2005)
Median age: 42 (2002)
Private boats: 1,438 (2005)

Density: 1.1 people per acre

Average annual precipitation: 54 in.

Average April high/low: 59°/41°

Who was here: Native Americans, who incised a petroglyph at Agate Point between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 500; George Vancouver, first European to set foot on Bainbridge, in 1792

Home prices (2005):
Median: $590,000
Low: $38,000 (houseboat)
High: $3 million (5,324-sq.-ft., 5-bedroom, 6½-bath house) 

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.” 

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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