Meerkerk Gardens prepares for upcoming sale

Greenbank residents Arlee Anderson and Barbara Douglas pull weeds during a volunteer day at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens in preparation for the spring nursery plant sale March 22 and 23.

Buds are blossoming and rhodies are lining the paths of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens as staff members prepare to open the season with the sale.

Operations manager Joan Bell is looking forward to seeing rhodies in every corner of the garden.

“It’s a fun thing to look up and see the layers of them outside,” said Bell of the garden’s signature rhododendrons. “Here, you have to keep your eyes open.”

The garden will begin the season with a spring nursery plant sale from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. next weekend, March 22 and 23, at 3531 Meerkerk Lane in Greenbank. Entry to the garden will be free during the sale weekend.

This year, Bell is expanding classes offered at the garden, including a series on dahlia propagation for successful blooms. The new Mary Margaret Haugen hybrid rhododendron, named for the former state senator and created by Frank Fujioka, a well-known hybridizer, will also be featured.

The property includes 10 acres for display and 43 acres of woodland preserve. It was established by Ann and Max Meerkerk beginning in the early 1960s. Before Ann’s passing in 1979, she gifted the property to the Seattle Rhododendron Society. Today, the non-profit garden is used for viewing, workshops, hybridizing and is open to the public.

The garden features a variety of blooms from the classic rhododendrons to a felt-like leaf called the Teddy Bear, named for its texture. Other rare sights fill the garden, such as the sought-after “bee tree,” diamond bark maple tree, and a test garden for hybrid plants.

Volunteers have worked to beautify the gardens since the beginning of February to prepare for peak season, from mid-April to mid-May. 

During a work party in early March, a dozen or so volunteers were pulling and tossing weeds from the beds. With a tight budget, they are the backbone of the garden and provide the much-needed labor to maintain the area, Bell explained.

Greenbank resident Arlee Anderson has volunteered at Meerkerk for six years and teaches workshops. She moved to the area from Montana and said once she found the garden, loved the soft peacefulness of it.

“It beats the price of therapy,” she said.

Susie Reynolds, nursery manager, reiterated that feeling.

“It’s a good place to break the monotony,” she said. “Some people use the place as a church.”

Reynolds said one of the busiest times she’s ever seen at the garden was after 9/11.

“People found the garden to be a peaceful place,” she said.

Bell said she hopes this year brings many familiar faces. The garden’s visitors predominantly are tourists, but she would like to see more islanders visit the property.

“A lot of people don’t realize what’s here in terms of nature of the island,” Bell said. “Here it’s a natural woodland environment.”

In the next few years, Bell hopes to develop the house on the property into a space to rent out for more events and classes. Classes are occasionally held in the building, but the structure needs several upgrades, including the septic system, flooring and windows, Bell said.

“Our focus is maintaining the garden in a wonderful way and expanding what we can,” Bell said.

“There’s so much we’d like to do, but maintenance is our top priority,” she said.