Ever since Maureen Murphy planted her roots on South Whidbey, the island has benefited greatly from her green thumb.
This time of year, when Washington is at its darkest and gloomiest, it’s common nature to gravitate towards the warm, brightly lit Christmas room at Bayview Garden, the business Murphy has owned and operated for the past three decades.
The cozy greenhouse is divided into different themes, from ocean to forest to traditional and retro. It’s a big attraction for locals and visitors alike.
“We are a tourist destination,” Murphy said. “At any given moment, I’m sure at least 50% of the people you see here are non-islanders.”
Bayview Garden’s Holiday House opened on Nov. 4 this year. A celebration the night before drew somewhere between 300 to 400 attendees, who packed into the greenhouse to admire the various Christmas items on display.
But it wasn’t always like this.
In 1993, Murphy started Bayview Garden with a handful of small greenhouses. She paid $400 a month to rent an acre and a half of a hay field belonging to the owner of a nearby feed store, who suggested she start her business there one day while she was picking up food for her animals.
“I get as far as Thompson Road, and I go, ‘What did he just say?’ And I literally turned my truck around and drove back,” Murphy recalled.
Murphy had previously been propagating plants and delivering them to garden centers on the mainland. Starting a retail garden center of her own in the Bayview area allowed her to make a living on the island, and significantly cut down her commute.
“It’s a really hard industry to make any money,” she said. “You live off of pretty thin margins and you have to love it.”
Horticulture may be in her blood. Murphy’s father developed pop-up greenhouses for big box stores, meeting Walmart founder Sam Walton along the way. Bayview Garden still uses a bench system that her father invented.
Murphy learned how to cultivate plants by taking a series of classes from gardening experts in the region. She visited England, where garden culture is huge, and borrowed some ideas from the pros. One of these included the archway of laburnum trees, which blooms in a golden chain every year.
“You need to have ‘Wow!’ 12 months out of the year,” she said.
She’s brought back other plants from Europe and introduced them to the Pacific Northwest market, such as lavatera barnsley, a perennial in the mallow family.
“People don’t know that, but this whole dance between humans and plants is a really rich and amazing history, and unless people keep doing it, it goes away,” Murphy said.
Bayview Garden has outlived many other garden centers in Western Washington that are starting to close, or have already closed. Often, the original owners are looking to retire, and their children may be uninterested in keeping the business going and decide to sell the property for a pretty penny.
“That’s what happens in the nursery world,” Murphy said. “The value of the real estate has become such that the rising generation doesn’t want to do what the lead generation did.”
But fortunately for Whidbey, Murphy’s son Sam Rowley and daughter Nekoda Acosta have plans to take on Bayview Garden from their mother.
As she passes on more of her responsibilities, Murphy is looking forward to traveling more, especially during the springtime.
“In our industry, no one travels in May,” she said.
Bayview Garden and the accompanying Flower House Cafe – which reopened in 2018 after an extensive renovation – employ about 50 people. Selling gifts has become an enormous part of the business, especially around this time of year.
Visitors to the Holiday House can’t miss the giant octopus made by employee Randy Landon, who manages the facilities.
Employees began setting up the Christmas-themed greenhouse during the month of October. And even before Thanksgiving, it had plenty of visitors.
“People love November for shopping our Holiday House. They always have. No apologies,” Murphy said with a laugh.
Looking to the future, Murphy is hoping to build more greenhouses so house plants have a place to be displayed year-round. Currently, things constantly get moved around depending on the season. She’d also like to have a space to teach classes, especially to island newcomers who may be unfamiliar with Whidbey’s glacial till.