Exploring Garden Treasures: Dunn Gardens, Part II of III

May 04, 2009

My interview with Sue Nevler of Dunn Gardens in Seattle, WA began here last week . Today, the series continues with Part II, focusing on history, care and specialty plants in the garden.

Robin: Please share a little bit about the design and development of Dunn Gardens for Garden Help readers.

White Trillium at Dunn

White Trillium at Dunn

Sue: The Olmsted and Dunn family history in the garden is fascinating. Any other garden celebrities who have contributed to the garden over the years? I won’t go into too much detail about the rich Olmsted history (come on the tour, and really see it firsthand). But in short, it’s a lesson in anatomy: the bones of the garden, the flow from space to space, the connectivity which makes the entire garden hang together and work, how that design functions is really thrilling. I think the layers of the garden are what keep people coming back. One time you might notice the Olmsted design qualities, another, the Dunn history, another time you might just focus on all the groundcovers, or spring ephemerals, or the magnificent heritage trees. We’ve been fortunate to have some of Dan Hinkley‘s “progeny” in the gardens over the years. Katherine Hepburn toured early on, and I once gave the Queen of England’s head gardener a tour, which was really fun. He was smitten with the erythroniums. Many of our local Seattle celebrities have helped publicize and educate Seattle about the gardens, and we thank them for their help.

Robin: As I understand it, parts of grounds are still owned by the original Dunn Family. How does it work having public tours mixing so close to private spaces? I ask particularly because during one of my tours I was concerned I was treading on private property, but the lines are so beautifully blurred, I wasn’t sure.

Sue: The Dunns are extraordinarily generous in making their portion of the property open to the public. The same with the curators. I think generally visitors are very respectful of their privacy, and everyone is flexible. Residents know when the tours and events are scheduled, so can adjust their own activities and downtime accordingly. For guests we hope It’s a bit like the English tradition of having estates open, you walk through, enjoy the beauty of the space, and are careful not to leave anything but footprints behind. It works well. And we are working to open the gardens more to the community so that everyone has a stake in seeing them preserved. I really think that they are a unique asset here in Seattle, a legacy to be valued and guarded thoughtfully.

Ferns and Azalea at Dunn in Spring

Ferns and Azalea at Dunn in Spring

Robin: What can you tell us about the current and prior caretakers? Has the garden always had a dedicated caretaker(s)? How many man-hours go into the care of the garden each year?

Sue: After the garden trust was established in 1994, Doug Bayley, a Dunn family relative, became the first curator and lived with his family here in the gardens. When Doug moved on, then Charles Price and Glenn Withey became the curators and have been with the gardens since. Charles and Glenn are renowned for their work (WitheyPrice Landscape) and have been thoughtful and stimulating curators of the gardens. Many Seattleites are most familiar with their design work of the Bellevue Botanical Garden Perennial Border, which they have returned to redesign this year. Doug Bayley is coming back to lecture in the gardens again this year too. We’ve been very lucky, this garden invites allegiance and affection. To answer man-hours..we’ve had to cut hours, and everyone is part time, so I’m doubly amazed at how well the garden looks.

Robin: Dunn Gardens boasts some of the most enormous rhododendrons I’ve ever seen. Can you tell me about the history of these trees? Any rare or special cultivars in the mix?

Sue: We do have a beautiful collection of rhodies, many of which were on the original Olmsted planting list. There are many R. yuku types, R. auriculatum, Ed Dunn’s hybrid: R. williamsianum x, R. yak pak #1, and #2, and many Loderi types. Really quite a range of beauties, some of which are not only lovely but fragrant.

Robin: Following on the prior question, are there any plants in cultivation that originated at Dunn Gardens?

Sue: Ed Dunn was a significant contributor in many ways in pushing forward knowledge about rhododendrons in Seattle. He had a rhodie named for him which you can see here in the gardens. Family lore says that he was chagrined it wasn’t a tougher specimen, but it has a lovely peachy, salmony bloom.

A Quiet Spot by the Duck Pond

A Quiet Spot by the Duck Pond

Robin: Is it possible to buy plant divisions from Dunn gardens?

Sue: We offer snowdrops, trillium, erythronium and hellebores, all our signature plants, for a “suggested donation” during the spring tours, and some that have been bred and raised by the curators may be found at local nurseries or plant sales.

Robin: What was the most exciting addition to the garden over the years, in your opinion?

Sue: I’m feeling cheeky and want to say “Sun”.  Little things jump to mind though, the Trillium rivale in the garden are delightful, new species rhodies with soft indumentum on the undersides of the leaves are a nice tactile element. The Cardiocrinum giganteum hold lots of promise with their super glossy leaves. Can’t wait to see and smell those ruby throated giants in July. Seems like there’s always something new popping out with Glenn and Charles’ guidance. I have to give special credit to Wells Medina too as each year they have given a substantial donation to ensure that there is new plant material available to keep Glenn and Charles intrigued. We really appreciate the nurseries who support us, as the plant budget is miniscule.

A Play Area for Children

A Play Area for Children

Robin: The garden has a tucked away propagation/edible garden near the west end. It seems like this isn’t maintained much. I’m wondering if there’s a reason this hasn’t been kept up. And, if the answer is funding, what would it take to reinvigorate an edible garden at Dunn?

Sue: That space has been used as a garden, a holding area, a weed trap, all kinds of things over the years. I would at some point love to see that be used as a pea patch, or community garden space. You’ve hit the gist of it though: funding, and priorities. We do have a small area in the garden that was designed by Fujitaro Kubota, and that needs renovation. The hedge/fence along the western flank also needs removal and renovation, and there’s the Heritage Tree program that needs funding, and the curator’s house needs paint, and the chimney top needs fixing, and well, you can see we do have projects that need tending! If we can knock some of those off our list (with the generous help of our supporters), then I’d love to see what we could do with the vegetable garden. There’s (a vegetable garden) at the White House now. It would be wonderful.

Continue reading more about Dunn gardens with the final installment of my Q&A with Sue Nevler here.


  1. Cath says:

    What a great series and an inspiration as well, I signed up for a tour in May!

  2. rhaglund says:

    You will love it. (Maybe I can meet you up there)!

  3. […] That wraps up part one of my interview with Sue. Read Part II here. […]

  4. […] we wrap up my three part interview with Sue Nevler of Dunn Gardens. (Part I here; Part II here.) Just a reminder that this Sunday is the Spring Wine Tasting Tour at Dunn. You do not want to miss […]

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