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Thursday, June 1, 2006 - Page updated at 11:31 AM

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Information in this article, originally published May 31, 2006, was corrected May 31, 2006. In a previous version of this story, a photo caption inaccurately described a waterfront garden as the Heronswood Nursery. The image depicted Heronswood founder Daniel J. Hinkley's private garden.

Paradise lost: Heronswood uprooted

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fans of Kitsap County's internationally acclaimed Heronswood Nursery — which is credited with putting the Pacific Northwest on the horticulturalist's map by introducing thousands of exotic plants from around the world — are about to suffer transplant shock.

Horticulture giant W. Atlee Burpee & Co., which bought Heronswood in 2000, told employees Tuesday it was shutting down the Kingston nursery and moving the research and retail operations to company headquarters in Pennsylvania. The company said it will retain the Heronswood name and catalog and will continue to offer a similar variety of plants.

For the founders of Heronswood as well as the thousands of gardeners who visited the lush nursery over the years, the news was devastating.

"This has been like dealing with a death in the family," said Daniel J. Hinkley, who began Heronswood with his partner Robert Jones nearly 20 years ago. "We're sad because we believed in Heronswood and believed it was more than just a nursery. We were trying to contribute to the horticultural community and the community as a whole."

Valerie Easton, a gardening expert and frequent contributor to The Seattle Times, said the gap left by the nursery's departure will not be easily filled.

"Heronswood is a Mecca for gardeners around the world, and it's quintessentially Northwest," Easton said. "Without Dan Hinkley or its Northwest setting, I don't know what Heronswood is."

A plant explorer, Hinkley traveled the world to find unusual and exotic specimens that would thrive in the Pacific Northwest. He brought them home to Heronswood, planted them, grew them and sold them through a highly anticipated and richly detailed catalog.

It was through Heronswood that hardy orchids and many species of hellebores were introduced to the U.S., according to Richard Hartlage, a landscape architect with AHBL Inc.

"This is a disaster," Hartlage said. "Everyone is just shocked."

When the sale was announced six years ago, many local garden lovers feared that Heronswood's homegrown charm and emphasis on Northwest cultivars would be swallowed by the profit needs of the much larger and older Pennsylvania company.

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But those fears receded as years passed and Heronswood and Burpee seemed to coexist peacefully. Heronswood remained a plant lovers' paradise that counted Martha Stewart among its fans, a world-renowned garden with 10,000 plant species, and two dozen dedicated employees dubbed "Heronistas."

Burpee President George Ball said the decision to close the Heronswood gardens and move the nursery operations was a financial one.

"We tried for six years and it just wasn't profitable," said Ball, who was in Kingston on Tuesday to break the news to Heronswood employees.

Ball said the move, which is expected to take place over the next three months, will enable the company to expand its product line to include varieties better suited to flourish in other parts of the U.S.

"The plants we've collected from around the world will be tested under conditions more similar to those of our customers," he said.

Burpee operates a 50-acre nursery in Willow Hill, Pa., and a similarly sized test-and-display garden complex at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pa.

Ball offered an apology to local gardeners who were grieving the loss.

"I'm sorry for that," he said. "If I could bat a thousand, I would, but nobody's perfect, and I did the best I could."

Of the 26 employees at Heronswood, seven have been asked to work through the summer. The others were told their jobs were gone, Ball said.

The gates to Heronswood were locked shortly after the announcement and workers began packaging plants for transport, Hinkley said.

"The hardest thing for me to swallow right now is that this is what people feared would happen," he said. "It was my decision to sell to a large corporate nursery, and it was not a decision that was made lightly, but I made it, so ultimately I am the person to blame."

The closing will leave a gaping hole in the local horticultural landscape, several experts said, and gives rise to speculation about whether someone will step in to fill the void.

Hinkley said that while he has several years remaining on a noncompete clause with Burpee, he is not ruling out the possibility of starting anew.

Ball said the 15-acre Heronswood property, which he called the best private botanic garden in the U.S., will be sold to someone who will honor it. "We're not going to just sell it to a developer who will tear it apart," Ball said.

Hinkley said he hopes that's true.

"One thing I want to tell the people at Burpees is that the garden is filled with some extraordinarily rare things, and I hope that whoever acquires it values it."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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