From Forest to Bluff, Shade to Sun: Heronswood to Windcliff

By: Bob Lilly

Bob Lilly is one of the original designers of the Northwest Perennial Alliance Borders at the Bellevue Botanical Garden. By…

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New Zealand flax (Phormium), various grasses, and a hardy palm around a pool next to the ter- race; blue agapanthus flower on the rise. Photographs by Daniel Hinkley

New Zealand flax (Phormium), various grasses, and a hardy palm around a pool next to the terrace; blue agapanthus flower on the rise. Photographs by Daniel Hinkley

We often desire a garden that is opposite to what we have, but few of us actually achieve that “other garden.” Dan Hinkley left behind a shady woodland garden, not well suited to sun-loving plants, when he moved to the sun-baked bluff at Windcliff and created a new garden that could never have happened at Heronswood.

From the forests of China and Vietnam to the mountains of Sikkim and Northern India, Dan Hinkley’s travels to varied climates and environments influenced the offerings of Heronswood Nursery and informed the garden he developed around the nursery. Recent travels to New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia opened his eyes to an entirely new flora and a distinctly different landscape, inspiring his new garden at Windcliff.

Yucca rostrata flowers beyond the pool

Yucca rostrata flowers beyond the pool

Although Dan concentrated on woodland plants from China and Japan at Heronswood, good plants from many different locales arrived on his doorstep regularly. Those preferring brighter light usually became residents of the perennial borders or around the house, where sun was more readily available; those areas were also the lowest and most frostprone corners of the garden. The woodland grew thick with his introductions and experiments, producing many offerings for the nursery.

With the sale of Heronswood, Dan and partner Robert Jones found a new property that would offer them an opportunity to create a garden in full sun. Although not far from their former nursery and home in Kingston, Washington, Windcliff seems a world away, with an extreme exposure to both sun and wind; yet, the site is relatively free of frost, since cold winter air merely drains off the cliff to the beach far below (Sunset zone 5).

View across a terrace and pools to the garden and Puget Sound beyond

View across a terrace and pools to the garden and Puget Sound beyond

A New House

Robert, an architect, re-imagined the existing house to serve their needs and to provide a solid base for the new garden. The low, stepped house of cherry wood, recycled fir, and stained concrete floors hugs the site; open to the southeast, it faces a complex arrangement of water, stone, and plants. After a drive through the forest on a narrow gravel road, a few steps through the house reveals a striking and magical garden that combines New Zealand, Australia, a bit of the Mediterranean, and Cape Town’s Table Mountain.

The evocative charm of Heronswood was enhanced by Dan’s naturalistic assemblage of woodland plants. The challenge at Windcliff has been to do this with plants much more diverse and from many distinctive eco-geographic regions: grass-like shrubs from New Zealand; perennials from open grasslands in South Africa; gray-leaved shrubs from the maquis of the Mediterranean; eucalypts from upland forests of Australia, succulents and geophytes from the Americas and from South Africa—and bizarre sunlovers from everywhere else.

This new two-acre garden sits on a bluff, high above Puget Sound, with no beach access. It will eventually be joined on the back side of the house by an even larger garden for rare trees and shrubs that will be protected from the wind in a less extreme exposure.

Prayer flags and Cortaderia fulvida add kinetic excite- ment to the garden

Prayer flags and Cortaderia fulvida add kinetic excitement to the garden

Grassland to Garden of Grasses

Dan and Robert began by establishing a series of horizontal planes of pavement and water along the house’s south side in order to link the garden to the Sound beyond. Between these and the edge of the bluff lay a fifty-year-old, rough-cut “grassland,” a blank canvas for the new sun-drenched garden. Dan devised a recipe for planting the area without breaking his back and without damaging the health of the soil:

  • kill the grass with vinegar
  • plant about one third of the acreage each year, for three years running
  • dig holes in the sod and toss the sod into each hole (by not tilling the sandy loam, the structure of the soil is maintained and weeds have a more difficult time getting established)
  • space shrubs about three to four feet apart, perennials somewhat closer (to allow them to grow unimpeded by competition)
  • lay down paths of aged bark
  • wait for the first hard winter (sure to eliminate some of the borderline hardy plants)

Installation of the garden ran concurrently with the house construction; the time allowed Dan to observe how some of the plants performed in this setting. Starting with small plants, many of them from four-inch pots, was a challenge visually, but allowed the plants the greatest opportunity to acclimate to the site conditions. The generous spacing left a frustratingly open and seemingly insignificant planting in the first years. Some plants, however, really enjoyed the room. South Africa’s blue-flowered agapanthus, for instance, are striking with their late summer color and fall seed heads. Agapanthus ‘Blue Leap’ and A. ‘Loch Hope’ are two new cultivars that Dan has used because they look particularly good with grasses, the blue sky, and the deep blue of Puget Sound.

Grasses are king during the summer at Windcliff. Among the standouts are New Zealand’s Chionochloa rubra and C. conspicua, Spain’s Stipa gigantea, Mexico’s S. tennuissima, and Cortaderia fulvida, also from New Zealand, with its arching stems. By late summer, Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’ is the most wonderful color of bleached cream. Rhodocoma capensis, one of the restios from South Africa, has proven hardy and fits well with the grasses.

A protected corner on the lee side of the house, sheltering ferns and tender Asian shrubs

A protected corner on the lee side of the house, sheltering ferns and tender Asian shrubs

Unifying the House and Garden

The garden and hardscape mingle by mid-summer, and most of the hard lines are softened by abundant vegetation. Dan carried the strong lines of the hardscape right to the edge of the bluff, where mosaic artist Jeff Bale has created a pebble and stone mosaic fire pit, set within a circular bench; the entire composition is oriented to the cardinal points of the compass as well as the winter and summer solstice (also used for the placement of the house). Elements from the water and beach below have been brought into the garden in Jeff’s design, and also carried into the house, with images of octopi and jellyfish.

The orange maroon peeling bark of a large native madroña (Arbutus menziesii), rising from the edge of the bluff, inspired the colors in the house and in the garden. By the third year, larger, more mature plants were available to use in the garden, including the red-barked Japanese redwood (Cryptomeria japonica) and Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’, which offers red twigs for winter color. For some screening from neighbors, Dan has used a hardy eucalypt (Eucalyptus neglecta) and Leyland cypress xCupressocyparis leylandii). He’s also playing with six different selections of Chilean firebush (Embothyrium coccineum), gathered on expeditions to Chile. Striking vertical prayer flags from India have been added and are allowed to fade with the weather.

A young weeping conifer frames an evening view of Mt Rainier

A young weeping conifer frames an evening view of Mt Rainier

Dan has worked to frame the distant silhouette of Mount Rainier from various vantage points. The garden slopes gently to the edge of the bluff, but grasses constantly bring the eye back into the garden. As he is quick to point out, however, a garden is a process—in his case, likely to be inspired by future travels.

Note: Dan and Robert do not accept individual or group requests for visitation. Windcliff is open one to two times per year for local charity events. Check for dates and details of upcoming Windcliff Open Days.