PHOTOS & ARTICLE BY MARTHA McCARTNEY
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
March 11, 2015
On the morning of the last day of February, rain that had fallen during the night cleared, leaving a brilliant blue sky over Meerkerk Gardens. Mingled smells of pine, cedar and damp earth combined with sounds of trickling water and birdsong from the forest canopy, creating a haven from things man-made.
Ferns and moss were scattered with dropped blossoms as if a flower girl had walked just ahead. The sun beamed through hemlock and Douglas fir, spotlighting a vivid show of red, pink, salmon, lavender and white rhododendrons scattered through the forest—all abuzz with pollinators.
Meerkerk Gardens was created by Ann and Max Meerkerk in 1961 and was later bequeathed to the Seattle Rhododendron Society. Now it’s an independent not-for-profit garden maintained and improved by volunteers, Island County Master Gardeners and local garden club members. The Meerkerk endowment provides partial funding, but 90% of the operating funds must be raised each year. This is achieved through Friends of Meerkerk memberships, plant sales, admission donations, grants, fund-raisers and contributions.
There are 10 acres of display and educational gardens and an additional 43 acres of forest with walking trails. The garden trails are partially ADA accessible and arrangements can be made for drop-off and pick-up to facilitate closer trail access for anyone using a wheelchair. In addition, an ADA restroom is accessible from mid-March through the first week of October. Pets are welcome if they remain on a leash.
The flowering starts in late February and early March and reaches a peak in April and May. However, the garden is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and the woods are filled with wrens, thrushes, chickadees and woodpeckers—with an occasional fly-over by ospreys and a nesting bald eagle pair known as George and Martha Washington.
Chipmunks and Douglas squirrels, rabbits, deer and coyotes also inhabit the grounds. Benches are tucked away among the ferns and other native plants. The meditation garden pond reflects the trees and sky and buzzes with dragonflies.
I recognize the rhododendron as the state flower of West Virginia because I lived there, and when I moved to Whidbey I was both pleased and surprised to learn it’s also the Washington state flower. Seeing the plants is like greeting an old friend and strolling through Meerkerk Gardens feels a lot like home.
During my most recent visit I was fortunate to speak with Susie Reynolds, who has been the property manager for the past 19 years. I mentioned my experience of the garden, my feeling of being totally immersed in nature, and she agreed. “In the days following the destruction of September 11, 2001, the gardens were full of people seeking peace and respite from the chaos being shown on television. Many visitors expressed the feeling of stillness and the serene energy that being in the gardens and walking the paths brought to them.”
There are over six hundred species of rhododendrons in the garden, including tropicals and hybrids. Many different varieties are for sale in the nursery, which is open during the prime planting seasons. The spring sale period starts on March 21, goes through early summer and is then open again to coincide with the fall planting season.
Throughout the year Meerkerk hosts many special events for all ages—concerts, bird watching, wine events and the fabulous Fairy House Festival. Classes on planting and the care and propagation of rhododendrons are offered, in addition to guided tours. And, of course, there is always a need for more volunteers.
To get more information, visit the website at www.meerkerkgardens.org. Along with event listings, educational events and photos of the beautiful grounds, there are pages of helpful rhododendron growing instructions. Meerkerk Gardens is located two miles south of Greenbank on Whidbey Island, WA.
Coming up in the next two weekends:
Saturday, March 14, 10 a.m. to Noon
Identifying and Using Native Plants in the Landscape
Learn the why, what and how of using native plants in the landscape. Plant samples and photos of landscapes using native and domestic plants will be shown.
Don Lee (ICMG), president of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, co-chairs the Island County Water Resources Advisory Committee and was the 2009 WSU Master Gardener of the Year. He is recognized as a local expert in native plants. Fee is $10; reservations are requested.
Saturday and Sunday, March 21 and 22
9 a.m. to 4 p.m
Nursery Spring Opening Sale
Meerkerk opens its nursery for the season offering a wide variety of hybrid, species and heritage rhodies from Fujioka, Watson, Barlup & Lem collections. One gallon to mature six foot plants available. Knowledgable staff will be on hand to assist you in picking out the perfect plant for your location. Shop early for best selection. Entrance to the Gardens is free during these special sales.
Martha McCartney is a poet, mixed media artist, photographer, persistent gardener and candle maker living the Whidbey life under the blue hole in the sky. She currently owns no goats.
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