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A lifetime of gardening distilled into a paradise named Windcliff

By Adrian Higgins Washington Post

Dan Hinkley writes in his new memoir that gardeners make one quintessential garden in their lives. In Hinkley’s case, that would be a place named Windcliff, formed passionately, tortuously over the past two decades on the edge of Washington state’s Puget Sound.

But for longtime gardeners, the ultimate garden embraces all that has come before. Hinkley looks to his other renowned horticultural endeavor, a nursery and display garden 7 miles to the north named Heronswood, as the progenitor of Windcliff.

Hinkley – good-looking, eloquent and funny – became a hit on the national horticultural lecture circuit (yes, there is such a thing), not just for his charisma but also because of his achievements. He is among a small global cadre of horticulturists and botanists who have spent years plant hunting in remote, verdant lands including Nepal, Vietnam, South Africa and the interior provinces of China.

More precisely, he collected seeds, bringing them to life in his greenhouse and garden. Serious gardeners are drawn to such rare beauties, hence the success of Heronswood, launched in 1987. By 2000, it had become an all-consuming success for him and his partner (now husband), Robert L. Jones.

Hinkley writes that Heronswood “became a laboratory, a hotel and salon, an entrepot of ideas and new plants with an eclectic guest list of often-celebrated authors, artists, designers, gardeners and media personalities. It was bigger than its parts, and more than Robert and I … could sustain.”

They sold the business but continued to manage it for another few years until the new owner pulled the plug. By then, Hinkley and Jones were immersed in the transformation of their second garden.

Hinkley tells me that while Heronswood was where he “began to understand the processes” of garden-making, Windcliff was where he refined them. (Heronswood became a botanical garden after its sale to the Port Gamble S’Kallam Indian Tribe, and Hinkley returned as its director in 2012.)

When Hinkley and Jones came to Windcliff in 2000, the property consisted of a home and garden in thrall of its view, with a clear connection to distant Mount Rainier. It was a house with picture windows in a sea of lawn.

The turf offered that most exciting of gifts to a garden artist like Hinkley: a blank canvas, even if it was “overpowering in possibilities but intimidating in scale,” Hinkley writes in “Windcliff: A Story of People, Plants, and Gardens.”

Early pictures of the garden show a space painfully empty of the layering and vitality of a replete garden. This was a period during which the old house was revamped and enlarged by Jones, an architect.

I love these tales of plant-rich garden-making; they’re inspiring, instructive and engaging – perfect for autumn and winter cogitation even if you have no intention of undertaking something so ambitious.

To the reader, obvious questions come to mind. Even without the setting, how does an inveterate plantsman whose eye is trained to perceive every detail of an individual plant avoid having a collection of specimens rather than a designed landscape?

And should you even attempt to create a rich garden when the view beyond it is so spectacular? The textbook advice is to keep the garden low-key and play to its vistas, but for Hinkley, who is still actively collecting plants, that idea is a nonstarter. There was no way that Windcliff was going to be anything other than what it became: a personal paradise informed by his plant hunting, his exploits at Heronswood, his entire gardening life.

The objective at Windcliff was to create garden experiences as much as garden spaces. He shaped some of the views, but in truth, the garden exists both within itself and in conversation with Puget Sound and the Cascades. The passage between both these worlds is marked by the mature Pacific madrone trees perched high on the cliff, catching the golden light on their red-brown trunks.

For Hinkley, now in his late 60s, Windcliff is a drama in its third act, a twisting story that is not always clean and linear. When he started Heronswood, gardeners in the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere) were aping the English garden.

“It was double-mixed borders, color-based plantings, color echoes and all those segmented spaces meant to lead us from one intimate space to another,” he said. “That’s not what I transported to Windcliff at all.”

Actually, the soul of Heronswood was not the sunny English borders but the woodland garden where Hinkley could develop a place for the shade-loving trees, shrubs and perennials he had collected from around the world.

In his “new” garden, now almost 20 years old, he developed a more relaxed series of experiences in which visitors could find their own favorite spots of repose. Before the pandemic, the garden and a small nursery, Windcliff Plants, were open regularly. Now access is by appointment four days a week.

“All gardens are contrived,” he said, “but I wanted people to feel welcomed and absorbed by the garden.”

Here’s another lesson from the book: You accumulate gardening knowledge not by Googling but by growing things and seeing what works and what doesn’t. This process doesn’t stop, even for experts. Hinkley is candid about his failures at Windcliff. He planted too many ornamental grasses in one area, used the wrong conifer for a privacy screen and thought he could grow lavender as if he were in the south of France.

His most conspicuous mistake was in trying to plant and establish 1-acre meadow. He selected the wrong grasses and perennials, and what he first took to be desired wildflowers emerging from the ground were many thousands of maple seedlings, all of which had to be weeded by hand. A meadow expert told him he was destined to fail because he was too enamored with woody plants.

Hinkley is sanguine and wry about all of this, and he can afford to be. For all his self-flagellation, he has created something significant and inspiring. Poignantly, Buddhist prayer flags near the bluff speak to the family and friends in the gardening fraternity he has lost along the way.

He reflects on the green-thumbed passions that have so profoundly shaped his life, and he thinks he knows what makes him tick. “I believe that gardening is good,” he writes, “and that it all begins with the seed.”

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