Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting Meerkerk Gardens in Greenbank, WA. I spent several hours admiring and photographing the gardens, then walking the nature trails. I finished the day by speaking to a volunteer, Arlee.
Arlee was very helpful. She enthusiastically provided me a history of the gardens. She explained the programs offered to the public and elementary school children, discussed how the gardens are supported, the role of volunteers and then she walked with me through the gardens, back to the nursery.
Along the way to the nursery Arlee, a retired school teacher, pointed out various plants and trees including a couple of rhododendrons that are about 70 years old! She also showed me a Ginko Biloba tree, that most likely is male because it has never produced berries and a Monkey Puzzle Tree that produces enormous round pinecones, which fortunately break apart as they fall off of the tree. Both the Ginko Biloba and Monkey Puzzle Tree have origins dating back to prehistoric times.
I had walked by these plants earlier and not really taken any notice to them. An impromptu guided tour gave me much greater appreciation of these trees and other special plants which make up Meerkerk Gardens.
Along the way we also met up with volunteer gardener Max and Special Project Manager Barton Cole. Barton is a Master Gardner, but also deals with unique issues that the gardens face due to the hilly landscape of Whidbey Island, the rain and the associated water run off. He has engineered a 100 meter long drainage system and “Rain Garden” that re-routes over a million and a half gallons of water a year in order to protect the land and create an irrigation system for the gardens.
Meerkerk Gardens were started in the early 1960’s by Max and Ann Meerkerk. Max was breeding Weimerheimer dogs and came to Whidbey Island to look at a dog when he fell in love with the island. He purchased several acres of land and when he was able he and Ann moved from Idaho to the property bringing 80 dogs with him. Soon after, he took interest in rhododendrons and began traveling the world looking for plants. He specifically looked for 20-year-old plants to create a mature garden.
When the Meerkerk’s passed, the gardens were willed to the Seattle Rhododendron Society. As years went by, the distance to travel from Seattle to Whidbey Island became too great to continue to care for the gardens. The current non-profit organization was formed.
Today Meerkerk Gardens serves the community in several ways.
1. The gardens and grounds are open from 9 am to 4 pm daily for public viewing and hiking at only $5.00 per person. Pets are allowed on the property, but please bring bags to clean up!
2. The on-site nursery has potted plants for sale from mid-March through June. Mondays-Wednesdays it is open using the honor systems. Thursdays-Sundays the nursery manager is on site.
3. Education is provided by volunteers and the nursery manager on proper care and planting of rhododendrons and other plants.
4. Educational programs and pruning workshops are provided for adults.
5. The gardens are considered a “Living Classroom”. Boutney adventure is an educational program for elementary age children. The program meets Washington States requirements for Essential Academic Learning. There are 4 classes: Plants Alive; Plants, Pollens, and You; The Life of a Leaf; and Meet a Tree.
6. Guided tours of the grounds are offered at $10.00 per person with advance reservation. Reservations can be made by calling: (360) 678-1912 or by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
7. The gardens are used as a research facility to create new and improved hybrids.
8. The grounds are available for weddings. The gardens, gazebo, and reflection pond make a beautiful setting for your special day.
Being a non-profit organization, there are few paid employees and a need for lots of volunteers! Volunteers provide educational programs for the public and elementary children, provide guided horticulture tours and help to care for the plants and grounds. The volunteers are affectionately called “Greatful Deadheaders” as they spend a lot of time removing the dead heads or “spent flowers” from the plants. Regular volunteer days are held on Thursdays from 9 am – noon followed by a group lunch. There is also a work day on the 2nd Saturday of every month. Volunteers can register on-line at www.Meerkerkgardens.org/volunteer.html
Meerkerk Gardens is funded in the following ways: the low admission fee of $5.00/person, guided tours at $10.00 per person, sales from the nursery, annual memberships, by becoming a “Friend of Meerkerk”, community fundraisers including a Mother’s Day concert, the Fairy House Festival, Fall Garden Fest and coming up on May 24, 2014 a Wine and Rhodies event. Many more events are listed on their website: www.meerkerkgardens.org/calendar.html.
In addition, special license plates sporting the Washington state flower…the rhododendron can be purchased when you renew your license plates. The license plates are available at all Washington state licensing facilities. The proceeds will help to fund the gardens.
When I went to the gardens, I roamed for hours taking photos of the beautiful flowers and walking the trails. I don’t tend to read signs by plants and I really had no appreciation for the amount of effort that goes into maintaining the property. Once I spoke to Arlee, Max, and Barton my eyes were opened. I was amazed by the variety of programs offered to the public and the vast number of events that are held each year to support the organization.
If you are thinking of going to the gardens, I would recommend first off that you go (NOW) and that you schedule a guided horticulture tour so that you can learn about the plants and truly appreciate how special these gardens are!
If you have already been to the gardens, I recommend that you go again!
The Meerkerk Gardens are open all year and have several fun events throughout the year. The schedule of events are listed on their website (www.meekerkgardens.org). Also on the website, you can learn more about the gardens, volunteer opportunities, how to purchase a license plate and many, many other things.
You can “like” them on Facebook by going to: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Meerkerk-Gardens/319758128123532
Thank you for taking the time to read about Meerkerk Gardens!