When Dan Hinkley wants a new plant for his garden, he doesn’t head to the local nursery or big box store. He finds his passport, crosses oceans and climbs mountains.
Hinkley is a plant explorer. But he’s never been content to just fill his pockets with seeds and hoard them for his own personal Eden.
In 1987, Hinkley and his partner, Robert Jones, began Heronswood Nursery, near Kingston. The nursery was devoted to introducing rare and unusual plants to North American gardeners. The garden itself, on the few days of the year it was open to the public, became a Mecca-like destination for plant lovers around the world.
Heronswood’s annual catalog read more like an adventure novel than a list of plants. Hinkley and Heronswood became highly influential in the horticultural world.
Heronswood had roughly 7,000 different plants by the time it was sold to W. Atlee Burpee & Company in 2000. After the sale, Hinkley continued plant hunting, writing, speaking and research.
On Thursday Hinkley will present “My Life in Plants: The First 60 Years” at the Wesley Inn as part of the Gig Harbor Garden Tour on Saturday and Sunday.
Hinkley has written for several periodicals including “Martha Stewart Living” and “Fine Gardening.” Two of his books have won the Book of the Year Award from the American Horticultural Society.
Hinkley lives in Indianola overlooking Puget Sound, where he maintains his private garden, called Windcliff.
Q: You call yourself a plantsman and also a teacher, writer, lecturer, consultant, nurseryman, naturalist, gardener. How would you describe your core mission in the world of plants?
A: I’m committed to introducing new plants into cultivation and trying to excite people with new plants.
Q: Are you trying to convert the suburban homeowner who needs a shrub and goes to Home Depot to buy whatever they happen to be selling that day?
A: No, I am targeting people who are largely hooked by plants. But I’m more than willing to meet anybody more than halfway. It’s interesting. I can drive around my own neck of the woods and recognize a lot of plants that I introduced. And so in some ways those plants bring people into the fold years after they were introduced.
Q: Why does it take so long for the interesting plants you have found and introduced to crowd out the sometimes boring stock at the big box stores?
A: The market is consumer driven. When more and more people start asking for that plant is when it becomes available.
Q: You’ve found, introduced and/or sold thousands of different species and cultivars in your career. Now, you’re just offering 240 at your nursery at Windcliff. How did these make the cut?
A: The nursery I have now is a far cry from what I had at Heronswood. I am so simple-minded I don’t know what else to do in life. I do have the luxury of producing plants that I just find of interest. Virtually all of them represent my own collections, and I feel committed to getting those out and increasing the pool of wild-collected plants and a wider range of genetic material.
Q: Heronswood has gone through a few iterations since you started it. It’s now owned by the Port Gamble S’klallam Tribe, and I understand you are back there in some capacity.
A: Yes, I’m the director of the garden (as an independent contractor), but I’m doing a lot of hands-on work. I’m updating the garden and getting rid of a lot of plants that have no business being there and trying to make it a better place than it ever was.
Q: Is it still a nursery?
A: No, it’s just a display garden now.
Q: How has gardening changed for you since you first made it your life’s work?
A: I understand the gardening process much better. I was trying to please other people at Heronswood when I first started. It was very formulaic. And I was a nurseryman, and I was trying to plug as many plants in the ground as possible. (Now) I’m not trying to please anybody but myself.
Q: You’re very generous in opening up your private garden for charitable events.
A: I don’t think a garden is really complete unless you share your work with people. I don’t see any reason why you would put so much effort into growing good plants and growing them well and then share them only with your friends. That’s the teacher in me. I want to show people how a plant can be grown and employed in this remarkable climate we live in.
Q: What plants are exciting you right now?
A: I’m growing so many amazing species of hardy schefflera. That was a house plant that I grew up with in Michigan. Now, through my collection work in Vietnam and China I’m growing eight different species of schefflera. They add so much to the garden. The texture is amazing.
There are some vines I’m addicted to in the akebia family but they are not akebias. These are holboellias and stauntonias. There are a tremendous number there that would delight the greater horticulture community and beyond if they saw them in their peak. They come from Asia and South America. They are really great vines for us in the Northwest.
Q: What advice would you give to that Home Depot customer who is going to buy a row of arborvitae or a rhody hybrid but maybe, just maybe, is willing to try something they haven’t seen before?
A: If they have an interest but don’t know where to start: Don’t take on your entire yard. Take on a bed and get your feet wet with a finite area. Garden some successes in that bed before you move on. I see so many people say it’s all or nothing and they do it all at once and it generally leads to failure.
Also, there is nothing wrong in bringing in (a professional garden designer or horticulturalist) to consult for an hour. They are generally not that expensive.