BY DIANNA MacLEOD
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARTHA McCARTNEY
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributors
December 3, 2014
Whidbey Island’s best-kept seasonal secret, accessible a mere five days a year, can be found in an area no larger than a potting shed.
In fact, it is a potting shed.
Located at the end of a winding road, set amid espaliered dwarf apple trees, evergreen hedges and tawny towers of ornamental grasses displaying their winter splendor, the potting shed at Cultus Bay Nursery is all dressed up for the holidays and packed full of unusual and exquisite seasonal gifts.
Cultus Bay Nursery has been owned and operated by Mary Fisher since 1986. The quiet of an out-of-season nursery seems to reflect Fisher’s philosophy about how to live life. “Whether you’re an artist or a scientist, it requires patience to observe nature. In order to see the patterns, move slowly and develop your observational skills,” she said as she served up a cup of hot cider to a customer.
Fisher inherited a love of plants from her father, who worked for the Department of Agriculture, and a love of textiles from her mother, who was “a beautiful seamstress.” With two brothers who are ornithologists and a grandfather who studied entomology, Fisher’s love of birds, bugs and the natural world seems bred in the bone. She is proud of her great-aunt Penn who—blessed with beautiful handwriting—worked for the Smithsonian inscribing labels for the birds and insects under glass. Her great-grandfather, Sievert Allen Rohwer, and father, George Gregor Rohwer, collected specimens for that same institution to display.
Fisher herself majored in textiles at the California College of Art. The materials of her creative desires these days are primarily paper and plants—twin loves on display at the holiday cottage. Suspended from the ceiling are dozens of intricate paper ornaments she has fashioned, fusing both Hispanic Ramilleta and German Dresden traditions. Hanging on the walls are wreaths stunning in their shapes and unusual materials. Vases of foliage in striking combinations grace the shelves.
Although floral arrangements scent the air and delight the eye, plants have also made their way into the jellies and jams displayed on the windowsills. Quince gleams ruby red. Cornelian cherry (described by one food writer as tasting of carnations, cherry liqueur, black cherries, and the fragrance of a night-blooming cactus) shimmers like a bottle of merlot. Jellies made from the berries of the Japanese silverberry plant and the white wine grape—Elaeagnus umbellata and Siegerrebbe—seem lit from within.
The fruit is harvested by Fisher from her own trees and vines and the hand-lettered Latin labels make it seem that Great Aunt Penn’s spirit hovers somewhere near. Garden gourmets will also appreciate the small loaves of fruitcake on offer. “All the fruitcake jokes are laid to rest once you taste these,” claims Fisher. “They are a holiday tradition among my friends and family; everyone anticipates the yearly batch.”
Fisher’s creative partner and fellow artist in the holiday cottage is Linda Apsitis. Apsitis, who possesses a horticulture degree from Edmonds Community College, shares Fisher’s love of plants. “I grew up under a shrub in north Seattle when it was still rural,” she joked.
From March through September, Apsitis works alongside Fisher at Cultus Bay Nursery. But the minute the nursery closes, she begins creating gifts for the cottage. “My home becomes a Santa factory. I take over my husband’s woodworking shop with my glitter, paper and glue.”
Like Fisher, Apsitis loves birds and applies images of her feathered favorites to cards, notebooks, boxes, candles, tree ornaments and even plates. While she’s busy at the nursery seven months of the year and making bird-themed art for another ten weeks, she’s always on the lookout at thrift stores and estate sales for interesting vases for her floral arrangements. Unique paper is her great passion and she searches it out twelve months a year. “Most of what I buy is handmade,” she said. “And certain papers can be found only once in a lifetime.” Fisher and Apsitis agree they are “paperholics.”
Although Fisher has been filling the potting shed with gifts to sell in late November/early December for the past 19 years, Apsitis joined her only five years ago. Judging from the birds flitting among twinkling lights and ornaments crisscrossing the ceiling, their artistic sensibilities are extraordinarily similar.
In a mass-produced, bigger-is-better, glowing-screen age, the cottage—with its complimentary cider and samples of home-made fruitcake—is less like shopping and more like wandering through an enchanted realm. The potting shed is as far from a Pottery Barn as it’s possible to get—and Fisher and Apsitis like it that way.
“Whidbey is an island of unique people,” observed Fisher. “Being local ourselves, we know what locals like.”
And that, it turns out, is a small potting shed in the greenwood where you can listen to classical music, drink cider with neighbors and admire the glories of the natural world gathered, arranged and interpreted by two artists with a deep appreciation of the pleasures of a northwest, cedar-dusted winter.
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The holiday cottage is open one more weekend this year, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 6 and 7. Visit http://www.cultusbaynursery.com for directions.
Look below to view
more festive and vibrant gifts
available at the
Cultus Bay Nursery holiday cottage.
• • •
Dianna MacLeod holds a degree in journalism from the University of Michigan. An alumna of Hedgebrook, she moved to the island in October of 2011 to complete a novel—and never left.
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