Meerkerk Gardens currently in peak bloom

'Deadheader' volunteer Barbara Douglas prunes rhododendrons in the specialty nursery.

The lush and dog-friendly Meerkerk Gardens in Greenbank are in bloom, displaying a vast array of bright colors and smells that send the senses into overdrive.

Open throughout the year, the woodland gardens are sprawled over a 53-acre property that overlooks Holmes Harbor and Saratoga Passage. Rhododendrons are the specialty at Meerkerk, as they are native to Washington, but a wide variety of azaleas and trees of all types accompany the “rhodies.” For those looking to do more than a steady stroll though the 10 gardens that are within Meerkerk, there are four miles of nature paths to hike. The real magic, however, is in the garden and those tending it.

Susie Reynolds, the Nursery Manager and the queen of the nursery, can be seen watching over her rhododendrons, among other flowers, throughout the week. A Washington native, Reynolds has been with Meerkerk for 20 years and knows the gardens like the back of her hand.

“I’m from Washington, so rhododendrons have always been part of my life,” Reynolds said. “I’ve been surrounded by them from a young age.”

According to Reynolds, Meerkerk founders Max and Ann Meerkerk were inspired by the natural growth of rhododendrons as well as the wooded setting seen throughout the state. As a result, it was the goal since day one for the Meerkerks to complement their flowers with a natural woodland setting.

“Max Meerkerk was somewhat of an arborist,” Reynolds said. “He wanted to keep the wooded atmosphere so the rhododendrons would have companion plants, which is a really nice complement as you can see.”

The result is a peaceful oasis that has the calming influence like that of a forest, with teeming wildlife such as chirping birds and squirrels. The Meerkerk Gardens also feature three ponds within the 53-acre complex, each with a different theme and their own sense of zen. With the specialty garden in bloom, as it currently is, the senses are overwhelmed with fragrant smells and vibrant colors.

“We enjoy the gardens because it’s quite peaceful and the staff is incredibly friendly,” said Sine Fuentes, a visitor from Mill Creek, Wash. “We have been to Meerkerk three times, and this is the best we’ve ever seen. It’s hard to hit it at the perfect time, but we did it right this time around.”

Much of the garden’s well-groomed appearance can be attributed to the regular volunteers who drop in every Thursday afternoon — The Deadheaders. Although they sound like a group of Grateful Dead superfans who happen to share a passion for gardening, the name comes from the method of pruning involved with rhododendrons in which the head of the flower is chopped off. With their tie-dye shirts as homage to their clever name, the Deadheaders cheerfully examine Meerkerk touching up the colorful gardens as they go. Arlee Anderson, a longtime-Deadheader volunteer, discovered a passion for flowers upon visiting Meerkerk some time ago.

“Meerkerk is a gem on the island,” Anderson said. “The best we can do is try to be good stewards for the land and keep this place special.”

However, the garden isn’t only about pleasing the eye, according to Anderson. The garden serves as a great educational experience for children, as Meerkerk tries to push kids to come to appreciate their surrounding environment as well as giving them a lesson in botany.

“We’re stressing education a lot here,” Reynolds said. “But we’re also doing fun stuff with the kids, such as a fairy costume-making contest where the kids use resources from the garden to build their costumes.”

While visitors come from around the globe to catch a glimpse of the colorful wooded gardens, the prices remain at $5 per person, while kids under 16 get free admission. Due to the work from the Meerkerk staff such as Reynolds and the dedicated Deadheader volunteers, the gardens remain one of Whidbey Island’s true gems, according to Anderson.

“I’ve got the best group of volunteers you’ve ever seen,” Reynolds said. “They just keep coming back every Thursday.”

Upcoming events at Meerkerk Gardens:

March 19-June 30: The specialty nursery is open Wednesday-Sunday 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.

April 23: “Fairy Making Magic”: crafts activity for kids.

May 8: Mother’s Day at the garden, noon – 4:00 p.m.

May 21: Wine & Rhodies Benefit Gala.