Home & Garden

Republican Party chairwoman's flowers, fruits, vegetables have laissez-faire roots

Rosie O’Donnell is one of the last people you’d expect to meet in the garden of Washington State Republican Party Chairwoman Susan Hutchison. But it’s not the actor and outspoken liberal activist – just a rose named after her.

When the irony is pointed out to her, Hutchison just shrugs and smiles. In the garden of this conservative, there’s room for a liberal.

The rose is an unintentional symbol for Hutchison’s garden philosophy: She grows what she likes in a land of common ground.

“Gardens are places that bring people together,” she says.

Hutchison had a long career as a TV news journalist and as an executive with many nonprofit organizations before taking the leadership post with the Republican Party in 2013.

The house she shares with her husband, Andy, in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood sits on a narrow lot that stretches down to Lake Washington. On it the couple grow fruit, ornamentals and a few vegetables.

A California redwood towers over the lower part of the lot where Bartlett pears, apples, cherries, blueberries and Concord grapes grow. The latter are part of a family tradition of spitting grape seeds over the railing on the home’s deck.

Sometimes the seeds land on a small three-hole putting green with artificial turf that doubles as an ideal surface on which to grow the gourds that extend from an adjacent pumpkin patch.

“People do all sorts of things to get them off the ground when they are ripening,” Hutchison says, happy with her serendipitous solution.

With her busy schedule, Hutchison has to prioritize the work in her garden. That means concentrating on two things: a small kitchen garden and her prized roses.

“There are few things that give me more joy than looking at roses,” she says.

She shows a visitor a few of her favorites: Medallion, Spice and, yes, Rosie O’Donnell.

Hutchison is intrigued by odd-colored roses. Voodoo is so dark red it’s practically black. Another, St. Patrick, is greenish-yellow.

She breathes in the roses’ scent and then looks around her garden.

“If I were to name this place, it would be ‘Morning Glory.’” she said. It’s a double entendre, she explains. First, it applies to the glorious sunrises that bathe the east-facing property. But it also reflects that common nemesis of Northwest gardeners: Convolvulus arvensis, otherwise known as bindweed and creeping Jenny, a relative of the morning glory.

Like a stubborn political opponent, “It’s always, always present no matter how hard you work at it. That’s life,” she said. And like other oppositions in her life, she has learned to live with it.

“You’re constantly compromising when you’re a gardener,” she said. It’s a metaphor for her career. Compromise is the essence of politics, she said. “If your job is to get things done, you’re going to find a way.”

On this early summer day, sprays of lavender were blooming around the roses. The blossoms were covered with a small army of honey bees. Hutchison uses no insecticides or fungicides on her roses or anywhere in her garden. But she resists being called an organic gardener. Laissez-faire might be more accurate.

“I think an organic farmer pays more attention than we do. We just let it grow,” she says. But the couple religiously recycle and compost.

The vegetable section of Hutchison’s garden is just steps from her kitchen. She grows tomatoes in pots and strawberries and a raised bed holds kale and more than a dozen herbs. A small bay laurel grows nearby. “I’m in this every day getting something.”

She even grows edible pansies that she adds to salads – much to the dismay of her two adult sons when they’re home for a visit.

One stalk of kale was besotted with aphids. Hutchison didn’t mind. She’s willing to share.

“You have to plant enough so they have theirs and you have yours,” she says.

While she fawns over her roses and can’t live without fresh herbs, there is a section of Hutchison’s garden that is even more precious. She points to a small patch of innocuous looking green foliage: a bed of anemones.

They’re descendants of flowers that grew in her grandparents’ Tacoma yard. Hutchison collected them shortly before her grandmother died in the 1990s.

That, Hutchison says, is one of gardening’s inherent gifts – the way it can bring back memories of people and shared experiences.

“I love them when they bloom. I think of her.”