These two gardens illustrate the variety and creativity of two contrasting Bainbridge Island lifestyles. A visit to the first garden feels like a walk in the forest while a visit to the second one is like a walk on the beach.
A Northwest Life: Close to the Land and the Sea
Debbie Bennett and her husband, Geoff Wilson, have called Bainbridge Island home since 1986. They lived aboard their boat until 1990, when they bought their current property. They rented out the house for several years while still living aboard their boat. Then they lived in the guest house while rebuilding the main house.
Twenty-two Western cedars had to be harvested from the densely wooded property in order to build. Some were milled and used to build the house. The oldest ones were left and they are huge — some are at least 8 to 10 feet in circumference. The couple finally moved into their beautiful new home in 2010.
Their business, Alaska Yacht Charters, has taken them north every summer since the late ’80s. Last year, when the cruise industry came to a screeching halt due to COVID-19 restrictions, was the first summer Bennett and Wilson were been able to spend at home.
Their boat, “The Alaskan Story,” is a 100-foot motor launch. The tours are eco-trips, concentrating on conservation and education about nature. There are usually eight guests and four crew members aboard. They spend their days cruising and watching whales and orcas, fishing for salmon and halibut, and going ashore to hike and explore.
Alaska Yacht Charters is one of the few cruise companies with permits for hiking the tidal flats and Glacier Bay, so the guests can use kayaks or paddle boards to go ashore. At night, the boat anchors in small bays and the crew put out crab and shrimp pots. All the seafood they catch is prepared for meals aboard.
Bennett and Wilson are retired now but a crew still works for them and “The Alaskan Story” will continue to offer eco-trip adventures. Retirement, however, will give the couple a chance to better know the piece of land they live on. The primary care of the property and extensive gardens are in the hands of Teri Cole Landscaping Services and her crew. Right now, Bennett says she’s just the weeder and waterer.
“Debbie is a very responsible gardener; she is loyal to the natural world,” Cole says. “She wants to maintain the naturalness that native plants and low-maintenance landscaping give.”
The front garden is definitely a shady, woodland garden. Deep beds under the limbed-up trees are full of native grasses, sword fern, deer fern, salal, foxglove and catmint. Wide stone paths meander near the house and merge into bark-covered paths that lead into the woodsier areas.
The bark paths curve naturally and are as soft to walk on as a forest trail. Native undergrowth trees and shrubs such as katsura, Indian plum, cotoneaster and vine maples line the paths, as do many Japanese maples and yew.
Additional complementary plants, including rhododendrons (Bloedel-sized rhodys!), azaleas, fuchsias, lilac, lavender, sweet woodruff, hellebores, ‘Cape Blanco’ sedum and lonicera, add flower color, scent and texture. Ivy and vinca ground covers keep weeds down but have to be carefully controlled so they don’t become invasive.
The back garden, on the water side, has more conventional beds but the plants are a repetition of the natives used in front. The lawn maintains that natural look with moss and English daisies naturalized in the grass. The back of the house and the guest house provide a splendid view over Puget Sound across to Brownsville, just south of Poulsbo. There’s no frost here due to the the proximity to the water, so that really broadens the plant palette.
Cole uses organic, eco-friendly fertilizers; she loves Maxsea, a seaweed-based product. She buys it for her clientele by the bucketful at Bay Hay & Feed, but the product is also available in smaller containers. She and her crew apply mulch and fresh soil every spring or when it’s needed for new plantings.
A Garden Open to the Sky and the Beach
Another lovely Bainbridge Island garden, on Rockaway Beach, has an open waterfront view of Seattle due east and Wing Point to the northeast. When the light is right, the tall Seattle buildings look like a huge ship floating on the sea.
This garden is in stark contrast to the Bennett-Wilson garden. Though there are many tall, old, native trees such as maple, pine, fir and hemlock on the hill above the house, the water side of the garden is completely open to the shore and the sea.
The hilly slope on the west side of the property provides the perfect setting for a very large, terraced garden. Layered rock-garden plants add color and texture to the hillside next to the driveway. In this established garden, the rocky crevices of the wall are softened by a variety of trailing fillers such as ‘Cape Blanco’ sedum, lithodora, sedum ‘Angelina’ and Labrador violets. On the upper terraces, Hakonechloa macra (Japanese forest grass), rhododendrons, Japanese maples and boxwood provide an artist’s palette of texture and color.
The garage eaves are smothered in heavenly swaths of lavender-blue wisteria in early summer. Shade-lovers including silvery brunnera and evergreen ferns fill the beds along the north side of the house. Behind the garage, the rock-lined garden path to the guest house accommodates Japanese maples, deciduous azalea, Japanese iris and lilac.
Shrubbery and tall hedges on both sides of the yard provide dense privacy from the adjacent properties, with the exception of an arched opening in the foliage on the northeast side. The arch is draped with a golden hops vine, nicely framing the view to the beach and Wing Point in the distance.
A seating area on the stone patio has the feel of a beach vacation on a sunny day. On overcast days, a covered back porch provides a place to entertain and serve meals at a long table while still enjoying the fabulous view of land and sea. White wicker chairs and tables cushioned with seaside prints add to the beachy atmosphere on the long, narrow porch: a perfect place to sit and watch the sunrise on a beautiful summer morning or to nestle down with a hot drink on a rainy Northwest winter afternoon.
A flower bed next to the porch steps is home to old-fashioned favorites such as bearded iris and English daisies. The lush lawn gets plenty of summer sunshine and is edged with low, drought-tolerant plants that maintain their good looks even on the hottest summer days. The rest of the garden consists of many traditional garden favorites, with exotics interspersed among the native plants.
A huge, silvery-green cardoon provides a magnificent focal point and boldly stands out against the background of the rocky beach beyond. The wide-open view frames the ferry wending its way back and forth between Seattle and Winslow through all of the Northwest’s changeable seasons — which, as everyone knows, can vary from day to day any time of year.
When the tide is out, a huge rock projects through the lower tidewater, providing a landing place for the resident eagles. It’s great fun to watch from the porch as the parents teach their young how to fish.
As you wend your way around the south side of the house, you can’t help but notice a gorgeous robin’s-egg-blue urn against the clipped wall of ‘Baggeson’s Gold’ lonicera. The hedge provides privacy screening from the neighbors on the south side.
These two gardens showcase the island’s eclectic lifestyle mix. Bainbridge is always an interesting place to visit and beckons you to return again and again.