lessons learned in making a garden: ‘windcliff,’ with dan hinkley

I HAVE A running joke with today’s podcast guest, a joke I suspect thousands of other former customers email him about regularly, too. Every spring cleanup I come up with more distinctive turquoise plastic labels in my garden that were the signature of Dan Hinkley’s former mail-order nursery called Heronswood. And I write to tell him so, or I send him photos of once-tiny plants he shipped me that are giants today in my yard—the plants named on those labels.

Now Dan Hinkley has another treat for us all in the form of his new book called “Windcliff,” the story of the garden he has been making since leaving Heronswood, and where he now lives on Puget Sound in Washington. “A Story of People, Plants and Gardens” is the subheading the book, and it is rich with tales of all of the above that have influenced the making of the place.

Learn about Dan’s insights into garden design—from avoiding beds of plants that are “as flat as a flounder” to why to start with smaller plants than ones that fill the whole space right away.

Dan will be giving various virtual talks to celebrate the new book; more on those below, too. Plus, enter to win a copy in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the September 14, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

making his garden at windcliff, with dan hinkley



Margaret: Hello there, and I’m sorry I keep writing to you about the plastic labels. [Laughter.]

Dan: Hello, Margaret. And they weren’t that tiny of a plant, they were really robust, no they’re just huge, so thank you for that nice introduction. It’s nice to talk to you, as always.

Margaret: Yeah, last time we talked, we talked for the “New York Times” thing about hydrangeas. Hy-DRAHN-juhs, as you would say.

Dan: Hydrangeas, yes.

Margaret: And before we get started, you have a virtual event coming up. September 30th. Is that right? September 30th?

Dan: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a joint endeavor between Heronswood and Northwest Horticultural Society. So you could go to heronswoodgarden.org or, the Northwest Horticultural Society, to get information. That will entail my talk on the development of Windcliff, and you also get a book sent to you in the process of signing up. So yeah, it’s a good way to support both Heronswood, as well as the greater horticultural community of the Puget Sound area by joining in.

dan hinkley’s upcoming virtual events

TO CELEBRATE his new book “Windcliff: A Story of People, Plants and Gardens” (affiliate link) Dan Hinkley has several virtual lectures coming up:

Margaret: A very rich horticultural area in our country. And Heronswood is now a public garden—your former home and nursery is now a public garden and people can, as you said, at heronswoodgarden.org.

There’s so much in this book, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s a whole big story, and it sort of starts at Heronswood because you learned so many lessons there. We should tell people who don’t know, you have traveled the world searching for new and unusual plants and so forth. You’re a plant explorer, part of your life has been that.

So it’s got a lot in it, this book, but especially in the beginning, you start with a design chapter, and I wanted to talk about some of the tips in there because besides making me laugh a lot, some of them, the way you state them, because your writing is quite funny and dry sometimes, but you’ve learned a lot and you’ve applied it to this new place. So first give us the backdrop. How long ago did you come to this new place and the transition and so forth that you brought with you to this new palette?

Dan: Well, in a nutshell, I’ll try. It was in 2000 when Robert [Jones, my husband] and I had sold this property. We continued to operate it for five years, but we were still living in Heronswood, so we began looking for property to get off of the center of this activity. And we wrote letters to friends in the area, asking them if they had any knowledge of land for sale in the local vicinity, to please let us know.

And we received a letter, actually a phone call, the following day after we sent these letters out from friends that had this amazing property in Indianola, that we had visited 20 years prior to help them prune a maple that they had there. They asked us to come over and help them prune it. And it was a spectacular piece of land, waterfront, looking due south and the Puget Sound and Mount Rainier and downtown Seattle, the skyline.

They were ready to leave. When they received this letter, they said, “You’ve thrown us a lifeline. Please, we would love you to have this property.” So in 2000 we started spending weekends at this property, in the house that they had, watching the sunrise and sunset, and as the seasons changed, how the light changed, and getting to know the soil a little bit.

So we had about four years of me being able to start planting perimeter plantings and throwing things at the soil to see what stuck. It was a brand new adventure, the soil and the light condition is so different from Heronswood.

So by the time we built our house in 2003 and moved in in 2004, I had already become quite acquainted with the new conditions. But it’s still a continual challenge [laughter], and so different from Heronswood, but it’s a joy, too. To be able to leave some mistakes behind and take with you those lessons that you’ve learned, I realize it’s just a real gift to be able to start two gardens, and in our case to build a garden and a house together. That was a real gift that I know a lot of people don’t get the chance to have. So I’ve reveled in every minute of it.

Margaret: You said “throw things at the soil and see what sticks” and so forth. And one of the many things I loved reading the book and having known you for a long time, and a little bit about the old days and so forth, that even though others would characterize you as a famous gardener and an expert, all these very high-praise kind of things, in the book you talk about, “I’m trying to see what’s going to work, and some stuff’s going to die.”

You’re very candid about the fact that this is experimental, even at your phase of second big garden, being a plantsman, having… You just said the people who owned the house before, they used to have you come prune this particular maple. I think you have a master’s degree and your thesis or whatever, it was in the genus Acer, maple, or something. So you got some training and experience, but you acknowledged that this is an ongoing learning experience and experiment, yes?

Dan: I don’t think any of us that call ourselves true gardeners can say, “Hey, we finally have mastered this.” I mean, there are some people out there that really have perfected the art of growing maybe a genus or two of plants that are more difficult to grow. But I would think any of us that are honest with ourselves know that we’re still going to plant plants too closely [laughter]. How ridiculous it is to take a 4-inch pot and actually plant it 8 feet from another 4-inch pot. That’s the most ridiculous looking thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Of course I’m going to plant it 3 feet apart and regret it in three years’ time.

These are the things that I continually struggle with [laughter]—this, this want of density of planting, and at the same time, realizing that I’m making a mistake in the process of planting. Trying to force square pegs through round holes, all of those things that we were doing as younger gardeners, I admit readily to doing again on another piece of property. But I think that ultimately, you do this long enough and you begin to understand some of those live principles of what makes a successful garden work, and I think those are the things that I took with me to Windcliff, and have continued to try to work within those principles to make a garden that’s satisfying to me all year round.

Margaret: So one anecdote you have in the book, you talk about, I believe it was a conifer, maybe, that was in a prominent place, that the previous owners had cultivated and loved. I think it was the juniper. You knew you wanted to use the real estate for something else, I think, but it would be a big deal and a big change, and you have this anecdote about making the decision to finally just go ahead and remove it and then also reminding yourself…

I think you say something like, “Beware the meaningless blob.” Like don’t just go out and buy one big thing to stick in there because the space suddenly looks so empty, but you have to go with those 4-inch pots if you want to make a complex and exciting planting for the future. So maybe you could talk about the letting go of something that’s there and the starting over a little bit?

Dan: It was a big Tam juniper, which is a pretty boring plant for us in the Northwest, but it was doing a lot of… It was providing a lot of utility in that space. It was just wasted real estate. So when I finally said it’s time to go, there I am left with a pretty sizable chunk of land in full sun, and it looks so raw and barren. And all of us as gardeners have been there, it’s like, “Oh God, it was looking reasonable. Now I destroyed it and I just want to fix it right away.” [Laughter.]

So our immediate response is to go out and buy some big plants at a nursery that are just going to become that same meaningless space.

And instead, what I’m suggesting that we do is to try a bunch of smaller plants that you can coax along to see what is really going to fit into that space culturally, and try to work in textures and seasonality and the fragrance, if that’s what it is, or a little movement in our case, because we’re perpetually buffeted by winds.

So yeah, I think that we’re seduced continually by the large plants in nurseries, that immediacy of effect, and what I’m suggesting is: slow down, plant things that you really want to try, which oftentimes you have to buy through mail order, so they’re pretty small plants, but they’re going to be big relatively soon, and to enjoy that process of raising something small and filling that space in will ultimately be richer fabric.

Margaret: I loved also the one lesson you said you brought from Heronswood, you said looking back at it, at some of the original beds, the areas, that they were “flat as a flounder,” and you learned looking at them, you said, “I’m not doing that again.” So talk a little bit about that. Non-flat as flounder horticulture.

Dan: That’s another thing and big lesson that I learned at Heronswood is that you don’t really think about the upper atmosphere of your garden. You’re taller than the plantings so you don’t want to look down on them. But it’s that interruption of space by planting something that’s a little taller, a little bit more narrow, adjacent to things that are lower and perhaps a little bit more broad, that really excite the eyes, at least in my case.

I will say that the risk of writing a book about how to garden is you can easily come across sounding like you know you’ve mastered it and this is the way you have to garden, and that’s not what I’m trying to say. But the lesson I’ve learned is that if I can interrupt a planting with something that’s taller, and take advantage of that upper atmosphere and frame a few views in the distance with it, it just excites your eye a bit more as you go across there, rather than just a continual flat, horizontal space.

Margaret: Another one in the design chapter that I loved is… And you cite both the two venerable English plants people, Christopher Lloyd and Graham Stewart Thomas. You said one of them said, “Take care of winter, and the remainder of the seasons will take care of themselves.” So explain what that insight about… You just mentioned seasonality as well.

Dan: Yeah, it was Christopher Lloyd that said that, I think. He told me that, or wrote it. And it is so true. Just by default, we end up with things that do their performances in the spring and summer. Things are going to migrate into your garden that are doing their thing during the high season of gardening.

But if you can deliberately select framework or even understory plantings that are going to do something during late fall, that would be good autumn color, or in the wintertime, whether it be evergreen foliage from a conifer or broadleaf evergreen, or whether it be fruit that holds on during the winter, or winter-flowering shrubs and trees such as witch hazels that do as well for you as they do for us, you are going to expand the season of interest in your garden. And then if you can do that, if you can think about those seasons, as I’ve already said, the plants that will ultimately migrate into the garden will take care of April through September.

Margaret: And you remind us, and maybe it should seem obvious, but again, we all shop in… Here it’s April, May into early June. We all shop in the time that is quote “peak spring” in our areas, so we end up with a lot of spring things. And you say, ration your plant budget. Don’t spend it all on the spring, and visit gardens and nurseries in all the seasons. This is a really important time right now to visit gardens, because what looks good now after a tough summer in so many regions…

Dan: So true. So true. You know, this is the time when people are getting tired of their gardens because the leaves are decrepit, the flowers are gone, but there’s a lot of things right now that are really picking up the pace. So if you’re out there right now visiting gardens or garden centers and looking at what’s shining, this is the time to buy. And also October, January. [Laughter.] Visit garden centers in January and February and say, “Gosh, that bark on that plant is so beautiful right now. That’s what I need to hold this part of the garden together during the offseason.” [Above, Vitis coignetiae in fall color.]

Margaret: You also talk about a couple of other things in the design chapter, like balance and repetition, for instance. You kind of reminded me—and I sometimes remember to say it when I’m lecturing or whatever, the repetition thing, and that can be of color, of shapes, of individual plants, so many different things—repetition. Want to talk about that at Windcliff, some examples at Windcliff?

Dan: Sure. And to try to convey repetition and balance in a sentence, it sounds like I know how to communicate in English, is really difficult, because it’s really something you feel more than can readily identify and talk about. But just by standing in your garden and sort of letting your eyes glaze over, you can begin to feel that sense of movement from one part of your garden to the other, through whether it be color in foliage in the springtime, or summer color, and in the case of Windcliff it’s Agapanthus. I have a lot of Agapanthus planted throughout the front part of the garden. And when they’re in blossom, it’s fantastic.

But it’s at that point when you can just look at the plantings and think there’s way too much weight on this part of the garden versus the upper part. It’s when I make my decisions as to what I’m going to do in the coming winter months, when I’m in there eradicating or adding, it’s those lessons I’ve learned just by staring into the garden at this time of the year, or at any time, really, to look at how the garden guides my own eyes from one place to the other. I don’t know. Does that make any sense? [Laughter.]

Margaret: That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Of course it does. And you’re right, when we see the agapanthus example, we see that and… But then we look elsewhere and that same sense of satisfaction isn’t happening. There’s a lesson in it. There’s a joy in looking at it, but there’s also the lesson in it.

Dan: Always a lesson that you have to remember [laughter], write down, and say, “This is what I’m going to do in the future.”

Margaret: As I said in the introduction, the subheading of the book is “A Story of People, Plants, and Gardens.” And it was very interesting to see you… There’s one whole chapter in the back where you mentioned different people who have inspired you, who you’ve traveled and done plant explorations with, whose work you’ve read, etc. etc. You talk about them throughout the book, but in the back chapter there’s more direct homage to some of them.

It’s very interesting for me to see you shout out other people, because of course, I think of you in that group [laughter], and I think a lot of gardeners who have benefited from the plants you’ve brought to us and the work you’ve done and so forth, because a lot of us haven’t really traveled beyond the garden center or maybe the botanical garden or some neighbor or nearby garden. We haven’t seen the world of plants in the same way that you and these other people.

I just wondered if we could just shout out a couple of them. You had J.C. Raulston, for example, I think the chapter begins with him. Just a little quick…

Dan: He was my hero, and we all have our own heroes through life. Fortunately for me, I get to have those people surround me still in the garden, continuing to grow. It’s not as if I have memento from them stuck away on my bookshelf that I pick up once every three years and think of him fondly or her fondly. But every time I walk through my garden, it’s this flood of memories of different people, and J.C. was so instrumental and so sharing in so many plants. It was his goal in life to get people to understand the breadth of the world of plants and the diversity that was there, and to be experimental in growing different things.

He shared so much with me that ended up really building Heronswood, so I couldn’t possibly not have him growing at Windcliff. So there are certain plants that he gave me that came into the collection just so he would be there. And there’s not truly a moment that I go by any of those plants, leaving the garden in the morning or coming home at night, that I don’t see him. And he, and many other people just flip a switch and there they are standing talking about those plants. I really feel grateful.

Margaret: There’s an arboretum named for him, yes?

Dan: He has J.C. Raulston Arboretum now in Raleigh. He died much, much too young in life, early 50s in a car accident. But interestingly enough, Tony Avent, who’s a disciple of J.C., is here in the garden today at Heronswood.

Margaret. No! Oh! [Laughter.]

Dan: He wanted to extend his big hello to you.

Margaret: The first time I went to that arboretum years and years and years ago, when J.C. was there, it was the first time I ever met the genus Cephalotaxus, the plum yews. And he had a collection of them, and some were tall and columnar and some were lower. And I kind of got what you just said—the breadth, that he wanted us to see the breadth even within one genus. So yes.

So we just have a minute left, barely a minute, and I just want to remind people, not just about the book, but you’re going to be doing this live event on the 30th, that they can… I don’t know if there’s a recording then afterward that they can also re-listen to, but we’ll find-

Dan: Yes, they can. So they sign up and then-

Margaret: So that’s great, so if it’s not a good time for them, they can-

Dan: Then they can watch it, I think for two weeks or something like that.

Margaret: Fantastic, fantastic. So you’re going to go out and hang out with Tony and spend a wonderful day, and I’m jealous [laughter], in your beautiful garden.

Dan: Well, you know what Margaret, interestingly enough, there’s a lots of plants at Heronswood that bring you into focus as well, from conversations we’ve had in the past or plants that we’ve admired together. So that’s really one of the most extraordinary thing about gardening is that your friends can come alive, and you do oftentimes at Heronswood.

Margaret: Thank you. Thank you. And I hope I’ll talk to you again soon. Thanks Dan, for making time.

dan hinkley’s upcoming virtual events

TO CELEBRATE his new book “Windcliff: A Story of People, Plants and Gardens” (affiliate link) Dan Hinkley has several virtual lectures coming up:

(Photos from the book of the garden at Windcliff are by Claire Takacs, used with permission.)

enter to win the book ‘windcliff’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “Windcliff: A Story of People, Plants and Gardens,” by Dan Hinkley, for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

Is there a design insight, a lesson, that you are working on applying at your place right now–the way Dan talked about avoiding “flat as a flounder” plantings and his other ahas?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, September 22, 2020. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the September 14, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Alison says:

    I want to change my front yard from crispy, weedy lawn to a beautiful space with mostly native plants. I’d like to get some ideas from this book!

    1. Sue says:

      I would love to have this book help me learn to create those blue swaths of color flowing high and low through his garden in my own garden!

      1. Joanne Fetting says:

        I have a shady area of my yard that has recently become a bit more sunny and is now defined by a 6 foot fence. I’m trying to plant with intention and without the urgency to fill the space. I’m also trying to use shrubs with multi season interest to define the space.

  2. Celia A Spence says:

    I am trying to plant more groupings of the things that are already in my garden, to show recurring colors and plant types, rather than adding more new plants to the garden.

  3. Carol says:

    I have had the pleasure of visiting Herrenswood many times over the years and have heard Dan Hinkley speak about Windcliff. I’m glad that Herrenswood is being resurrected. I have combined Dan’s advice to not plant a flat garden and your advice to avoid “polka dot” plantings. Now, when I look the living room window, thanks to both of you, I have a serene and beautiful garden view. Many of the plantings began with just a few 4” pots purchased at Herrenswood. Over the years they have expanded into sweeps of color. I know about the turquoise tags! Count me in!

  4. Alice Tillery says:

    All the plants in my yard seem to be the same height. I would like to have a variety of low and high. It would be a lot more interesting.

  5. Jeff says:

    This is not design per se, but more the logistics: But in our first years, we tried to get the largest specimens we could – often putting in 10G and 15G size trees and shrubs, only using the smaller sizes for things unavailable in larger containers. But we have literally seen a 2G or 3G size tree become almost the same size as the larger ones in the same time frame; it really is true what they say – the smaller ones settle in faster, so they grow sooner, while the big ones sulk and take years to grow.

  6. Paula says:

    I’m renovating the front garden so it doesn’t look so homogenous. Trying to pop in some vertical things amongst the ground cover and I sheared the boxwoods into separate shapes so there’s more of a random yet geometric look.

  7. Julie Abramson says:

    My garden slopes up a small hill which thus makes some plants seem taller than they would if it was flat. A key element in my design is how various mounds of plants and shrubs relate to each other.

  8. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNER IS: Robert Soret. Such great answers from all of you — thank you. Glad that Dan’s messages were well-received!

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