I have often sat flipping through my book "1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die" (edited by Rae Spencer-Jones, 2007) looking for inspiration for garden trips. Now, I don't take this or any other guide book too seriously; coming from a small country, I know how easily real pearls of gardening are totally ignored even by seasoned, foreign garden editors. And how much can you trust a writer who misses both Norrvikens Trädgårdar and Göteborg Botanical Gardens in Sweden, and finds only one garden, Villa Mairea, to write about in whole Finland? Anyhow, the Bloedel Reserve has a well-deserved place in this guide. Last Saturday, despite a cold and rainy weather, our little family headed for the Bainbridge Island, thirty minutes ferry trip from Seattle. And truly, we were very well rewarded for our efforts as this garden proved to be one of those magical places you really would not want to miss if ever given an opportunity to visit them.
The Bloedel Reserve started as Collinswood, a retreat for the Collins family in the early 20th century, and the main house in French chateau style by Seattle architect J. Lister Holmes was built in the middle of the Great Depression in 1931. As this property came to market in 1950, Mrs Bloedel was very attracted to the house, while Mr Bloedel was very impressed by the woods and nature of the place, and so Collinswood was sold to Prentice and Virginia Bloedel together with the surrounding 60 acres. 49 years old, Mr Bloedel had just retired from his lumber business and ready to pursue other tasks in his life. The Bloedel Reserve became a work of garden art accomplished over 35 years by the Bloedels. It is a series of designed experiences interacting with the surrounding wilderness, following Mr Bloedel's vision that the Reserve should be an example of man working harmoniously with nature and where his power is used cautiously and wisely.K
My girls shivering in the rain, a bit doubtful about mom's ideas of good ways to spend weekends...
The walk around the Reserve starts with a long meadow and old barns that used to house Mrs Bloedel's sheep. This quite large and essentially empty area works like a cleansing of the senses after arriving to the Reserve. The Reserve is very careful about preserving the landscape's quietness and reserves spaces only for a limited number of visitors at scheduled intervals, which I find very attractive as this gives the visitor a possibility to experience the site like it was before it became a public garden.
The pathway circles from the barns past large, moss-covered trees and native shrubs to a bird refuge, where trumpeter swans paddle around together with ducks and other birds. This area was designed to give the birds a natural habitat providing them food and shelter.K
After the bird refuge, the path continues through the wilderness, arriving via a trestle bridge to a Japanese influenced boardwalk past cedars, firs and hemlock trees. The boardwalk gives a possibility to view closely the surrounding wetlands, containing a large planting of skunk cabbages (Lysichiton americanus) and even a few carnivorous pitcher plants. I was quite overwhelmed by the strong scent of the skunk cabbages, which is actually quite pleasant despite the name. Last time I had smelled this scent was when I was five and living in Northern British Columbia, and now I could instantly remember it even before seeing the sulphur yellow flowers. I felt very nostalgic telling to my girls how I picked these with my older sister pretending they were rabbit's ears when I was small...
After the wilderness, the track suddenly merges with the driveway to the house, with a large expanse of lawn and a beautiful pond in front of it. The white French style house forms the focal point of this view and only when coming close to it, you notice that it actually is quite small in scale, an intimate family retreat in classical style placed in the middle of the Pacific Northwest forests. The main rooms of the house open to a magnificent view of the Puget Sound, with an eagle's nest fully in sight from the backside terrace, as it is situated quite high above the sea level.
At the North side of the house, there is a man made waterfall (from 1954) with a small lookout terrace, then the track continues through the ravine planted with rhododendrons, viburnums and skimmias. Native oxalis, also called sorrel (Oxalis oregana) forms large mats as a groundcover. A bit later, salal (Gaultheria shallon, a leather-leaved native to Western North America, covers the ground from which Himalayan birches (Betula jaquemontii) raise their ghostly white, slender trunks. Most of the perennials were still just tiny shoots, but I imagine this part of the track will be quite magical when in full flower.
The Japanese garden surrounds a tea house, style wise a hybrid between a Japanese tea house and a Pacific Northwest Indian longhouse, designed in 1964 by Seattle architect Paul Hayden Kirk. A Japanese stroll garden behind the tea house of the Reserve was built in 1960-61 by Fujitaro Kubota, a nursery owner and garden designer from Seattle, also known for the Kubota Gardens. The stone garden is a later addition, designed by Koichi Kawana and built in 1986. It is a meditative garden, meant to involve the viewer to interpret the setting and to imagine features appropriate to him/herself. Somehow, the tea house was a bit too large for true intimacy and felt more like an official meeting place, but I thought it would be lovely to sit here with good friends, discussing this wonderful garden with a cup of tea in our hands.
The moss garden was created in 1982 and forms a large area cleaned from most other vegetation than moss, huckleberries, some ferns and skunk cabbages. This was an idea of Richard Haag, then the Reserve's landscape architect, and Richard Brown, who was the Reserve's executive director at that time. To create the moss cover, some 2200 plants of Irish moss (Sagina subulata) were brought here and divided in small plugs which were planted. I was surprised to read this, as the whole surrounding forest is covered in luxurious mats of moss, but indeed, despite the "natural look", the whole area is planted. I loved this part of the Reserve, it felt so calm, understated and elegant. Somehow, even birdsong sounded softer, and I could just imagine small trolls and fairies gathering together here in the dusk.
The last "experience" is the Reflective Garden, with a large, rectangular pool enclosed with a high, clipped yew hedge. This strong but simplistic feature was one of the Bloedels' favourites, and they had carefully considered several different approached before settling for this design, partly together with their friend, landscape architect Thomas Church. The reflective garden is like a man made frame to the beauty of nature that is always reflected on the calm, dark surface of the pool. It is like a living painting, always new and different depending on the time of the day, light, and weather. The remains of the Bloedels were placed in this garden at their request, and I can understand their wish to be one with their beloved garden. As Prentice Bloedel is quoted to have often said, "the nature does not need us to survive, but we need nature in order to connect with a sense of creation." The Bloedel Reserve is a magnificent testament to two nature and garden loving persons, with an understanding and appreciation for the uniqueness for their beautiful surroundings.
Thank you for this amazing virtual tour. I am vowing to make it up there this year - I keep forgetting to make a plan to reserve and head up there. What a marvelous place, and I appreciate how you explained some of the more formal features and why they were chosen, how they function. I tend to be allergic to formality in the garden but I can see the virtue of things like the Japanese rock garden (like a Noguchi sculpture) and the reflecting pool which draws in the trees and sky. Nice of your kids to accompany you! Did they like the swans?
Hi Karen, maybe we can go together, I would love to go here again when more things have come up. I can drive... send me an e-mail so we can plan this. The girls loved the swans but were most exited about the eagle's nest and a series of excellent photos of a baby eagle hatching, at the visitors centre. I just love this place, it is so natural and the formal parts of the garden highlight the surrounding wilderness so well.
I stumbled on this blog post while searching out more info on the Reserve - visited today and LOVED it! Anyway, I hope you don't mind if I link to your informative guide on my blogs. It's much more well-written and thorough than I could be on the subject! Thank you!
Your photos are exquisite. I enjoy your personal tours of gardens. Having never visited The Bloedel Reserve, I was surprised by your note that the moss cover is actually Sagina subulata--which is not a bryophyte or true moss. However, the boulders in the sand section look like they have bryophytes growing on them. Please contact me directly to discuss. THANKS, Mossin' Annie
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