Ministry Of Controversy

The Story Ends Well For Heronswood

Vicky Shallow7 comments641 views
Spread the love

Heronswood, the revered botanical garden created in Kingston, Washington by plant collector Dan Hinkley and his partner, architect Robert Jones, as an adjunct to the nursery they founded in 1987, was put up for a sealed bid auction last month by its owner of the last 12 years, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. . . and won by a Native American tribe, the Port Gamble S’Klallam, who have a reputation for careful environmental stewardship and whose ancestral lands include the site of the garden.

Yesterday, I interviewed George Ball, the CEO of Burpee, about the sale.  In 2006, unable to make Heronswood work as a business, Ball closed the nursery and moved the catalog operation to Pennsylvania, where Burpee is headquartered. For this, Ball was pummeled in the press and lampooned on the cover of the Plants Delight Nursery catalog as “George C. Wrecking Ball.”  Though Garden Rant, too, piled on, I always felt the pummeling was unfair.  After all, no one had forced the previous owners to sell.  Yesterday, I interviewed George about his history with the garden and his hopes for its future.

Q: The purchase by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe seems to be a happy ending for Heronswood.

A: I like to call it a happy beginning. We had been talking to the tribe on and off for a few years, but they were tentative. I’m very happy that they emerged as the winner of the auction a few weeks ago.  Working with them since the sale has been like opening the door to an advent calendar. Every day, I learn something new. In their press release, there was language about maintaining the garden not just for the tribe, but for the larger community, that surprised even me.  We’d opened the garden three or four weekends a year to the public to benefit The Garden Conservancy. The tribe has said that they will open Heronswood to the public even more.  They haven’t yet announced how they are going to use the garden.  They are in the planning process, which is good.  I have been very impressed at the long-range view they are taking and the care.

Q: How did you wind up buying Heronswood in 2000?

A: It was a great match for Burpee. We have been in the perennial business for a long time. Mr. Burpee, our founder, was a big perennial guy. But we were doing the broad strokes, while there was a growing interest in les choses belles et étranges. If the customer wants it badly–and as long as it doesn’t mean selling destructive invasives–I’ll see if I can make it a business. Heronswood was a very famous place in the gardening world, and I liked the concept of Dan Hinkley’s collecting, since I’d been on plant collecting trips since I was 14 years old. I was very impressed by the garden. Impressed, impressed, impressed.

On the other side, Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones said that they were tired of the business side of things. Burpee was a big consumer company. There was the idea that Heronswood could go national.

I made a miscalculation in thinking that Heronswood’s plants could go national. I’d bought Heronswood for the plant collection– between 7000 and 8000 taxa. But Heronswood is in a rain forest. I learned that what did well in Heronswood’s wet Zone 8 wasn’t necessarily good in Southern Illinois or Indiana. It was a regional nursery. Now, the mail order business Heronswood had established wasn’t regional. But it was 10 miles wide, three inches deep. The early catalogs had a huge list of plants. But a lot of things, we’d sell four of.

Dan and Robert stayed on as managers. In 2003, I said, “Look, guys, this isn’t working. I’ll sell Heronswood back to you for half of what I paid for it.” It was a great deal. But they refused. So the remaining two and a half years of their consulting and management contracts were strained.

When I moved the nursery, it was for operational efficiency. But we also subjected the plants to aggressive and deliberate adaptation tests in the Heronswood Gardens at Fordhook Farm. We are going to continue to offer under the Heronswood name the really great hellobores, tiarellas, hydrangeas that have more of a national market.

Q: When you closed the Heronswood operation in 2006, I read the New York Times piece about it and was amazed by Dan Hinkley’s statement, “I would much rather see the garden euthanized immediately than to see it decline over several years.”  It seemed remarkably churlish, given that he’d voluntarily taken millions for the place.

A: I was stunned by that statement myself.  Maybe he was saying he’d like to euthanize George Ball.

Q: And yet, according to all reports, you’ve maintained the garden beautifully since then.

A: I love the place. We logged so many hours and so many miles of air travel for it. I sent a guy out there to do the first complete physical inventory of the plants. It took a year to do, since there is a 10-month growing season at Heronswood and the plants don’t all appear at once. I’ve taken great care of the place. We not only preserved the garden in excellent intact condition, the only plants removed even for research purposes were culls. We never removed a single species from the garden. Thousands of people have visited on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days in recent years–and nearly all of them have had their breath taken away.


Posted by

Michele Owens
on July 27, 2012 at 1:29 pm, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Taking Your Gardening Dollar, Unusually Clever People.


  1. Great story. It makes me feel a lot better about Burpee – and is a lesson not to draw too many conclusions before knowing the whole story. Of course, the media doesn’t always give the whole story which is a problem.

  2. It just shows that green miracles are possible. I dreaded hearing that Burpee [Ball] had purchased it from Daniel Hinkley, a consummate plantsman, hunter and collector. Heronswood is a one of a kind botanical wonder. To read that it was a ‘regional’ nursery only proves the point that George Ball doesn’t have a clue about those collectors, whom Hinkley catered to, that weren’t afraid to dabble in Zonal Denial. I’m Zone 5 and grow a growing number of the very plants that Hinkley introduced via Heronswood. Perhaps now fans and past customers of this wonderful botanical mecca can rest easy!

  3. Mr. Hinkley’s churlish streak isn’t news, and seems to go along with his adventurous genius. Heronswood was a fantastic source of rare things, if you didn’t mind often getting smallish plants at a biggish price. It must be exhausting to run a nursery with so big a list — no surprise they don’t usually last long.

  4. Please read the article in the New York Times–the link is in one of the questions Michele asks. There you will see that Dan Hinkley’s “churlish” remark referred to George Ball’s vision of the gardens as being part of a retirement community development and open to the public. Not too many condos have grounds anything like the Heronswood gardens. Condo owners have to pay for maintenance. How likely would it have been kept up? The retirement community would pay for these public gardens? Seen many condo grounds you would call amazing gardens? That potential situation is what Dan was referring to.

  5. Heronwood Garden will forever be one of the most unique places, visited on my travels in 2002 with other gardeners, master gardeners and all around wonderful people who expressed such awe that such a magical place existed, full of plants and flowers that were so imaginatively, creatively and knowledgeably displayed. It is not so much land-scaped but a primal, verdant celebration.
    Thank you.

  6. It’s great to see that such a huge corporation is still about the plants. I’ll be watching for more news about openings of the gardens. This also explains why some of the plants I’d ordered from Herronswood didn’t survive.

Leave a Response