Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times
                                Many changes took root at Meerkerk Gardens this winter, including a new configuration of strolling paths. Frank Simpson, executive director and garden manager, brings in another layer of crushed rock to rack.

Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times Many changes took root at Meerkerk Gardens this winter, including a new configuration of strolling paths. Frank Simpson, executive director and garden manager, brings in another layer of crushed rock to rack.

Changes bloom at Meerkerk

New paths mark perennial gardens

New paths took root over the winter at Meerkerk Gardens in Greenbank.

They are wider, smoother and give way to vistas in all directions.

And they have a winsome “Alice in Wonderland” quality with choices “to go this way or that.”

“The previous configuration wasn’t very user-friendly,” said Frank Simpson, executive director and garden manager of the 50-plus acre grounds famous for its rhododendrons. “It was full of humps and hollows, dips and divots.”

Since November, Simpson has hauled in loads of crushed rock to cover the new walking paths, weather permitting. Huge holes await the planting of shrubs and trees that will line the walkways.

Meerkerk, a not-for-profit garden open year-round to the public, is most popular in the spring when its thousands of rhododendrons and magnolias bloom and drifts of daffodils pop up.

Opening day at the nursery is March 17 for the public — rain, shine or snow.

“I’ve opened in the snow with people standing in line, checkbooks in hand,” said Susie Reynolds, nursery manager.

The annual opening day sale is one of Meerkerk’s busiest. Gardeners know the 500 one-gallon plants Reynolds buys for the nursery don’t last long. Most are rhododendrons of all colors and sizes, but there’s also sedums, pineberry, companion and native plants.

Reynolds knows rhodies. Going on her 22nd year at Meerkerk, she regales non-rhodie types with many facts starting with the name (‘rhodo’ for rose and ‘dendron’ for tree); its country of origin (China) and how to keep them alive (water, water, water.)

Walking behind the nursery shed, she points to some medium-sized rhodies growing in several rows.

“This is what I call instant landscaping,” she laughs. “If you don’t want to buy small and grow it yourself, we can dig these up. Most of them were rescued from other pieces of property.”

Simpson and Reynolds are part of a small, three-person staff.

Upkeep of the sprawling grounds depends on a legion of dedicated volunteers, called Grateful Deadheaders. They often wear bright, tie-dyed shirts during their Thursday morning sessions of weeding, pruning and “deadheading” – picking off dead flowers to encourage growth.

The “peaceful woodland garden” is the legacy of Ann and Max Meerkerk. In the 1960s, they envisioned creating a 13-acre Pacific Northwest style woodland garden enveloped by a forest preserve. They purchased 40 more acres and began hybridizing rhododendrons and collecting unique plant and tree specimens.

The new walkway begins at Meerkerk’s main entrance, a stone kiosk where visitors pay and pick up information.

“It will essentially accommodate those who want to see some of our plants without having to go deeper into the woodland,” Simpson said.

“We’re trying to allow easier access to plants, make it easier to get around for those who are not up for a longer walk, sort of broaden the appeal for multi-users.”

Simpson calls the configuration that he created an American-style garden.

Walking by a massive tree called King George, he explained the importance of incorporating horizons as a design element.

“Coming around this way, it opens up this vista which kind of invites you in. And when you come to this corner, there’s paths inviting you to go this way or that way.”

A new nursery shed is also being constructed. Repairing the old one would have required just as much labor, Simpson said.

Additionally, trenches were dug near the park’s gazebo to lay underground telephone, internet and other cables.

A celebration and grand opening of the new garden pathways is in the works. Until then, visitors can stroll the grounds but are warned to stay out of areas with yellow cautionary tape.

“We’re building on what we inherited,” Simpson said. “We stand on the shoulders of those before us who did so much work. We still have plenty to do but we’re on track.”

Meerkerk Gardens is open daily, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Admission: $5 for adults; free for children 16 and under. Dogs on leashes permitted. Peak bloom season is March through May. Nursery opens to the public today. www.meerkerk gardens.org

Executive director Frank Simpson explains how the strolling paths at Meerkerk Gardens are wider and have new vistas and choices to explore.

Executive director Frank Simpson explains how the strolling paths at Meerkerk Gardens are wider and have new vistas and choices to explore.

Rhodies native to Washington are pink and generally bloom late March through June. They are also fragrant to attract pollinators. This one at Meerkerk could be among the first to burst.

Rhodies native to Washington are pink and generally bloom late March through June. They are also fragrant to attract pollinators. This one at Meerkerk could be among the first to burst.

Susie Reynolds, nursery manager, tends to hundreds of different species of rhododendrons and companion plants at Meerkerk Gardens.

Susie Reynolds, nursery manager, tends to hundreds of different species of rhododendrons and companion plants at Meerkerk Gardens.

Nursery manager Susie Reynolds stands among the 10 acres of display gardens at Meerkerk that also contains 43 acres of forest trails.

Nursery manager Susie Reynolds stands among the 10 acres of display gardens at Meerkerk that also contains 43 acres of forest trails.

Just a sampling of Meerkerk Garden plants available for sale March 17 through June.

Just a sampling of Meerkerk Garden plants available for sale March 17 through June.

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