The Bloedel Reserve

Doesn’t time fly?  This time last year I was lucky enough to visit this beautiful house and its even more beautiful garden.  Despite appearances it’s not an elegant little 18thc chateau in France but  a 1930s building  on an island in the middle of Puget Sound, about half an hour by ferry from Seattle.

It was bought in 1951 by a timber magnate Prentice Bloedel and his wife Virginia.  Their vision was  both ambitious and unique, and led to the creation of what is now  known as the Bloedel Reserve. It was a true case of poacher turned gamekeeper, because the Bloedels took on a place that had been logged and turned it into a place of forest conservation.

It is not by any stretch of the imagination “a place of horticultural exhibition, but a place of contemplation that renews the spirit.” And while it’s difficult to convey the atmosphere  I hope the photos will help show how the Bloedels captured “the genius of the place.”

All the photos are my own unless otherwise stated.  The first part of the post gives the background to the establishment of the garden and the second, with most of the photos is a tour of the site.

Virginia and Prentice Bloedel

The house was Collinswood, originally built  as a holiday home and hunting lodge on land where the primary forest had been logged in the late 19thc. The Bloedels bought the house in 1951 and as well as it being their family home for well over 30 years,  they used it as a space  to explore the relationship between people and nature, which is what the foundation that now runs it continues to do.

Prentice Bloedel was born in 1900,  the son of a Seattle businessman. He went to Yale and originally intended to become a teacher before reluctantly joining  his father’s timber empire.    Julius Bloedel along with two partners had started buying up  large blocks of forest on  Vancouver Island  and began clear-felling on a grand scale.  Their company soon became one of the world’s largest logging operations, and also ran a chain of timber mills.

Virginia c 1921 [portrait hanging in the house]

Virginia  was also from a prominent timber family, and their home had grand Italian-style gardens. She was bought up in horticulturally knowledgeable circles as her  mother was a prominent member of the Seattle Garden Club and on the board of directors for the University of Washington Arboretum.

Prentice  was an early environmentalist and a  pioneer in renewable resources and sustainability,  making sure that every part of the tree was used in some way, and then deliberately replanting after felling. By the late 1930s  he found himself leading forest conservation projects and doing it so  successfully that within 10 years  his company carried out 70 percent of all the private-initiative reforestation programmes in the Pacific North West region.  His company merged with others and became the giant MacMillan Bloedel which was the first truly integrated forestry company in British Columbia and  able to compete in the global market.   At the same time Prentice founded another company dedicated to buying up tracts of logged forest land much of which was normally abandoned and replanting it.  It was part of what William Estes called his “almost mystical and reverent attitude toward the environment.”

When Prentice and Virginia  first saw Collinswood  there was no garden to speak of, merely some rhododendrons planted on the edge of the forest. Instead he wrote “We found single plants and colonies of fragile woodland species, mosses, ferns, a world of incomparable diversity, a panorama . . . one feels the existence of a divine order. . . . One realises that we humans are trustees in this world, that our power should be exercised in this context.”  It inspired them  to create  a garden that would “possess an internal unity and integrity that would realise its capacity to inspire and refresh” and serve as “an example of man working harmoniously with nature.”

One result of this was that the garden is not in any sense a traditional garden. Despite Virginia being very knowledgable about horticulture there’s little that is conventional here.  No herbaceous borders or formal flower beds and certainly no re-creations of  grand terraces  to match the “chateau” or any other  historical conceits or references.  Instead the various areas seem to have emerged almost effortlessly from the landscape and were designed to evoke strong emotions, almost in the manner of the Picturesque, from awe and wonder to calm and tranquillity.  Of course, such seeming simplicity was far from effortless.  The couple gathered ideas from  many landscape architects,  completely reshaping parts of the landscape, and planting  hundreds of thousands of trees and other plants. They experimented too, and so there were failures as well as successes but eventually more than 60- acres became “gardens” or “designed landscapes” with another 84 acres of secondary growth forest.

The Bloedels and their two daughters

As they grew older the Bloedels were  worried that the estate  would be  vulnerable to alteration or even destruction after their deaths, and decided it should become a community asset.  So  in 1970 they  gave the house and grounds to the University of Washington which had a strong reputation in forestry and horticulture.   In 1974  they went on to establish and endow The Arbor Fund, as  a non-profit corporation which is dedicated to developing, maintaining, and managing the reserve for public and educational purposes. 

Two years later in 1976  Richard Brown was appointed to run the gardens & in 1978 he ran a competition for a new master plan for the estate’s future.  This was won by Richard Haag who had spent time in Japan in the 1950s as a Fulbright scholar.  Then there began a seven-year process of developing further areas of the garden and helping existing features to better connect with the larger landscape.    All the time trying to achieve what the Bloedels wanted:“…a physical balance between man and nature, appealing to the senses, rather than the intellect.”  Haag’s work  received the President’s Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects in May 1986.

The Foundation opened the estate to the public in 1988 and  continues to run it today as far as possible in line with Prentice’s  belief that “It will require sensitivity and restraint to preserve this inheritance. I think very little should be done except to open it up with a system of paths that guide the visitor through interesting terrain to intriguing vistas and points of interest…”

The entrance lodge – the only small area of “conventional” gardening

So let’s take a stroll around.  The suggested route now takes the visitor  round the estate leaving  the house and more traditional garden areas  until towards the end of the tour.   This gives a real sense of the size of the reserve but not an immediate sense of how everything fits together, and is rather the reverse of the normal way of seeing a garden where one starts with the areas closest to the house and moves out gradually through semi-formal areas to the surroundings.

The route starts top left of the map, heads straight down to the water at the bottom centre of the plan then back up via the path on the right up to the house top right before returning via the central section.  Follow the link for  a good key and more details 

From the entrance lodge the visitor follows soft wood-chip paths through  the wide expanses of The Meadow which once housed a flock of sheep and whose  former home now serve as a backdrop for summer concerts and  performances.

 

This leads to trails though the regrown “secondary” forest of Douglas fir, western red cedar and hemlock, some of it now up to 150 years old,

and then to a 10 acres  ‘bird sanctuary’ in marshes and swampy woodland.

This began life in 1975 as a series of irrigation ponds but was then adapted and redesigned by Richard Haag to attract wildlife, particularly  birds. The ponds were stocked with fish, small islands were created to provide shelter for birds and planting was chosen to provide food, cover or habitat. Its success can be measured by the fact that apart  from  boardwalks around the edge  to allow humans view but no access,  it looks as if it was always there.

 

From there, after a long walk  through more forest and over streams and bridges the visitor emerges into a more formal European landscape with a striking view of the house. The mansion is now beautifully maintained and used as the  visitor centre. 

The Bloedels considered numerous designs for the area immediately surrounding  it, including plans by the modernist designer Thomas Church, rejecting most of them as  “too much architecture, too little nature.”

But Church was commissioned in 1954 to lay out a new sweeping entry drive and trees to surround a large pond  created out of swampy land near the house which, like the bird sanctuary looks as if it’s entirely natural.     He became friends with the couple and continued to visit and advise.

 Perhaps the biggest problem area at this early stage was the area at the back of  the  house.  This overlooks a steep downward sloping bank  with long views through the trees towards the sea  and the distant Cascade Mountains.  To most people the obvious solution would be sweeps of terracing but this was rejected as too formal and finally the solution chosen  was another idea of Thomas Church again adapted by Richard Haag: a small terrace at the top but then just a simple curvilinear sweep of lawn, flanked by mounds of taller grasses, which lead the eye towards the horizon.  

Planting round the house is simple, mainly lawn with some specimen trees which hide the wide variation in terrain. Behind this tree, for example, steps lead down to a  look-out that affords a stunning view even further down into a steep gulley known as The Glen. 

This is planted with Mrs Bloedel’s favourite woodland plants such as rhododendrons, candelabra, primula, trillium and pulmonaria. There are also massed plantings of bulbs and cyclamens,  all growing under the canopy of secondary forest which probably make it the nearest thing to a traditional western garden on the reserve.

 More trails from there leads to  a Birch Garden,  of mainly Himalayan white birches  with contrasting  underplanting of rhododendrons, hydrangeas and maples, which look good at all times of the year but particularly with the brilliant reds and yellows of autumn colours .

But lovely though these gardens are it is perhaps the next three areas which cause the most intakes of breath because the Bloedels were also very interested in Japanese  culture and gardens.

In 1956, they commissioned Fujitaro Kubota, one of Seattle’s first Japanese gardeners to create a Japanese garden but rather than  a traditional one something that was more  in keeping with their naturalistic vision.  In particular this meant that there are none of the traditional ornamental features such as  bridges or stone lanterns.   This seems to have suited Kubota  and he and two sons laid out the rocks and plants  by eye rather than drawing up plans .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They introduced a vast array of trees including an ancient laceleaf maple imported from Japan and a large katsura.  Prentice  even originally forbade  pruning preferring to leave everything to grow naturally, although that rule has now been relaxed a little.

The new garden was complemented with a guesthouse built in 1961 in red cedar and glass. It was designed by Paul Hayden Kirk on the recommendation of Thomas Church,  in a style  derived from  a mix of Japanese architecture and that of the longhouses lived in by the indigenous people of the North West Pacific .

 

The view over the Japanese Garden

Originally there was a swimming pool next to the guest house but following an accidental drowning it was decided to replace it with a garden.   Richard Haag installed  the Garden of Planes a beautifully gravelled and shaped mound of angles and flat surfaces which drew on Japanese principles and also  replaced the concrete paving outside the guesthouse with a pattern of concrete squares alternating with grass.

Luckily Haag recorded the site because in a sign of the ephemerality of gardens his contribution did not last long. Ironically in the year that he won the award for his work at Bloedel and  the Arbor Foundation took over the site they  commissioned a  replacement for his Garden of Planes that they felt would be be more in keeping with the design of the rest of the Japanese Garden.

The result was the Sand and Stone Garden designed by  Koichi Kawana, a professor of landscape architecture, which is what you see today. This requires a great deal of maintenance as can be seen in this interview with the keeper.

Haag’s greatest success was, in my humble opinion, what is now known as  the Moss Garden.  Unlike most gardens this was not created by adding most of the elements to the landscape but the very opposite: “selective subtractions of the nuances of nature from the chaos of a tangled bog.”  The land had been abandoned after the logging in the 1880s, leaving stumps, uprooted trees and discarded logs what Haag calls these “ghosts of trees,” over time it had become overgrown.

 

Haag had seen moss gardens during his time in Japan and then one of the Bloedel’s daughters Virginia Wright  visited Japan and also became interested in the possibilities.  The Bloedels took some convincing but eventually beginning in 1982 the undergrowth was cleared and some of the logging debris removed to create views through and spaces under the canopy of  the regrown forest.

This would have been effective in itself  but the masterstroke was  a “nursery planting” of  2,200 trays of Irish moss – some 275,000 plugs in all.  Mosses are natural colonisers but often fussy about habitat, [try telling that to those who are obsessed by having moss growing on their lawns!] so this apparently is an extremely good way to establish moss in any shaded area.  It worked.  Within 5 years  Native mosses had taken over completely and there are now at least 40 species growing there.   It has its own maintenance gardener.

As Prentice Bloedel recognised“…there is grandeur in decay”, and now moss, fungi, and ferns are colonising everything  as it gradually rots away, making the area almost primordial and  reminiscent of the mossy forest in the region’s Cascade mountains.

The final major area of the garden is, if anything, even more surprising than the adjacent Moss Garden.  It arose from discussions between Prentice and  Thomas Church.  Mr Bloedel had seen photos of formal English canal ponds but wasn’t sure how such an idea could be incorporated into his naturalistic vision.  Church hit on the solution of using one of the many  natural springs and the  high water table to create  the 200 foot long Reflection Pool.   Just plain grass around it.No sculpture no fountains no plants.  But it was Richard Haag who again added the finishing touch: the tall surrounding yew hedge.

What that does is create for the visitor when they pass unsuspectingly through the entrance  a “a breathtaking shift” from the wilder landscapes of the Reserve to a stark but immediately attention-grabbing cool and silent formality.   It is “an empty space until your spirit instills a total unity.”

Designed as a place for meditation it is where, under  a simple flat stone, rest the ashes of both Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. On the stone are the words from one of Mrs. Bloedel’s favourite poems  Emily Brontë’s, Sympathy:  “Are not the best beloved of years around your heart forever?”

What more can one say…

 

There simply wasn’t enough time/space here  to do justice to the Reserve which is one of the most evocative places I’ve ever visited so if you want to know more  the best place to start is their website, but its also worth looking at the entry on The Cultural Foundation website, and at the short videos there made by Richard Haag.

 

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2 Responses to The Bloedel Reserve

  1. ilacox says:

    Thanks for covering this lovely property on your Gardens Trust blog. Readers from the UK may no know about the unique beauty of the Puget Sound area and its very special climate.

    • Thanks. As you could probably tell I loved the region and its flora/forests/scenery and even the weather & If it hadn’t been for the pandemic I’d have been back again this year to explore more thoroughly. Maybe next year!

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