Pacific Northwest | September 7, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 7, home
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Snohomish Serendipity
In the aim for country simplicity, an estate-quality garden grew
Evergreens add structure to the focal point of a simple bench. The fluffy leaves of two golden locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia') hang over the tableau.
DAN AND DARLENE Huntington never started out to make a country garden.

Darlene was restoring Victorian houses in Snohomish while the couple lived in Medina raising their children. The irony is that their plan was to simplify their life by moving to Snohomish so she wouldn't have to commute. It didn't turn out to be quite so simple.

When the couple took a fateful trip to Norway, Wales and England in 1989 to trace Dan's roots and visit relatives, they discovered not only ancestors but a mutual love of gardens. On their last day in England they happened to stop by Barnsley House garden in the Cotswolds, just when a group from the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle was touring the famous garden. The Huntingtons fell into instant camaraderie with the other gardeners, and were so sorely bitten by the garden-touring bug that over the next few years they went on to visit more than 150 British gardens. It didn't take long before they were dreaming of how they could turn their bare Snohomish plot into an English-estate-inspired country garden. Their five acres had a lovely view of the Snohomish Valley, but not a single shrub and only one fir tree — the previous owners had grazed horses and sheep in the pastures. But it didn't take the Huntingtons long to learn that their manure-enriched soil grew large, healthy plants.
A wooden platform and bench overlook the bog and pond gardens. An old tub is planted up with exotic-looking, carnivorous pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava), which have proven reliably hardy the past few winters.
Darlene's father helped build many of the garden's structures, like this white bench backed by lattice and flanked by rosy sedums and a tall burst of Helianthus salicifolius 'Lemon Queen.'
Darlene, who was born in Snohomish, joined the garden club in hopes of getting the women to help work in the town's little historical museum garden. Instead, Dan was soon buying up plants from the garden-club sales, encouraged by how lustily they took hold in the rich soil. This early involvement in the garden club set a pattern for the couple, who are so active in local plant societies that few boards, auctions, plant sales or lectures take place without them. Darlene's generosity and knowledgeable help, and Dan's wit and hard work are a vital component of the Northwest garden community.

For Dan, gardening eased the transition from the working world, where he was an FBI agent for years, then in the executive-search business. "After the cops-and-robber world, and the business world, gardening was something foreign to me, and I started at the bottom and had to learn," he says. He began by building a playhouse for the grandchildren and planting a few flowers around it, then a few more along the fence; then he was hooked. The property's extensive gardens have been developed without a master plan. "Everything has been just sort of serendipitous," Darlene explains.

Over the past decade of gardening, both Huntingtons have become enamored of trees and shrubs. The many trees they've planted add scale to the wide view of red barns, stripes of green lawn and gold fields, and the weather sweeping across the valley. Each bed and border has its own name, including the "Bomber Bed" shaped like the wing of a B1 bomber. Golden foliage and flower plants predominate, chosen to stand out against the green lawns and contrast with the many dark-leafed plants like red Japanese maples, Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' and chocolate-colored heucheras.
Focal points, like the purple container atop the pedestal, at far left, draw attention to the many colorful corners in this large country garden. The Paulownia tomentosa's leaves are kept so huge, and the tree kept in bounds, by cutting it down to the ground every year.
Darlene, a restorer of homes and avid recycler of materials, rescued these old Snohomish water pipes, 10 feet long and made of cedar, and turned them upright to create eye-catching pieces of garden art.
Darlene, the renovator of houses, loves to recycle materials, and points out old water pipes set upright to add a vertical note to the borders, benches made of driftwood and curly plant stakes crafted of bent rebar. Arched arbors and skillfully placed trees lead the eye from the containment of the garden to the "borrowed view" of valley, sky and distant barns. With five acres, there's plenty of space for drifts of favorite perennials along the fence lines, mounds of white 'Annabelle' hydrangeas, and several golden catalpas and golden locust trees.
A misty September morning in the Snohomish Valley softens the vivid dark-leafed Dahlia 'Yellow Hammer' and spangles the many ornamental grasses filling the wide sweeps of border in Dan and Darlene Huntington's five-acre garden.
Now that they've toured so many gardens, shopped all the plant sales and planted up the acres in wide mixed borders and stunning focal points, how to take care of it all? Here's where the division of labor comes into the story. Two days a week year-round they have a gardener who tends to the woody plants. Dan mows all the grass with a riding lawn mower and keeps it neatly edged. Darlene weeds, Dan cleans up the mess she makes, and both of them plan projects along with the gardener.

Although Dan always says "it's her garden," the two often work side by side. They met in high school in Renton, are coming up on their 50th wedding anniversary, and, explains Darlene, "The garden is the only thing we agree on besides politics."

Gift plants and homages to friends are everywhere. The European hornbeams trained into an arch at the entrance to the garden are purposefully reminiscent of Dan Hinkley's Heronswood in Kingston. A drippy fountain is called an "ode to George" with reference to Bainbridge Island watermeister George Little. The Huntingtons credit their mentor and fellow Snohomish gardener Mark Henry with articulating the philosophy that has helped them, despite all the time, work and curtailment of travel, to thoroughly enjoy their garden. Even while encouraging them early on to plant evergreens to lend an informal, country-style structure to the garden, he reminded them that, "All we're doing here is trying to make pretty."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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