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Exploring Garden Treasures Series Beginning with Dunn Gardens

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Dunn Gardens Tour from Your Armchair!

We’ll begin this Dunn Gardens Tour with an interview with Executive Directory Sue Nevler. Sue is a much admired historical garden advocate in the greater Seattle area. And she’s done much to support Dunn Gardens over the years.

Dunn Gardens Tour includes much naturalized beauty like this

Naturalized Beauty at Dunn Gardens

What brought you to the gardens and what keeps you working on its preservation?

Robin: I first visited for a Dunn Gardens tour after hearing from many horty friends that it was a must-see garden destination in Seattle. I can’t believe it took me so many years to make the visit. What brought you to the gardens and what keeps you working on its preservation?

Sue: I came to the gardens through rowing friends. Gretchen Hull was the first docent coordinator, and she invited me to check out the gardens which were right in my own Broadview neighborhood. Once I realized what a beautiful, interesting place it was, I was hooked, became a docent, docent coordinator, spent 6 years on the board and was invited to be the first executive director last year. Each year I’ve spent in the gardens I am more convinced of the necessity of preserving such a uniquely important landscape.

A Vast Space in the Larger Garden

What does it take to maintain a garden of this size in Seattle?

Robin: What does it take to maintain a garden of this size in Seattle? It must be expensive, and it must require a lot of dedicated volunteers!

Sue: The garden is 7.5 acres, so it does take work. Our curators Charles Price and Glenn Withey maintain the curators’ garden behind the house and work on special projects throughout the gardens. Our head gardener, Roger Lackman has been with us since the gardens’ inception in 1994, and Zsolt Lehocsky our staff gardener does an amazing job of keeping up with the maintenance of such a large garden. We totally rely on donations and membership, so that support is critical for us. The docents all volunteer their time to lead the tours. They are exceptional in their dedication as ambassadors of the gardens. We are now benefitting from Seattle Works volunteers coming periodically too, and that has been essential this year. We’ve had to cut all staff hours due to the economic downturn, so that’s been a little scary (so don’t forget contributions really count!).

When do you encourage Dunn Gardens Tours?

Robin: What is your favorite time of year at Dunn Gardens and why?

Sue: That’s a tough one.. I tend to say early spring as there’s just so much happening, the snowdrops, magnolia, trillium, erythronium, hellebores, hepaticas, and more. But each season as I walk through the garden something new pops out and grabs my attention. I have to admit, this winter when I spent time in the snow covered gardens, that was totally enchanting.

Trillium, Azalea and More in Spring

What’s Dunn Gardens lost that you miss the most?

Robin: Every garden goes through a cycle of living and dying. During your tenure with the garden what has been the saddest loss in the garden?

Sue: Sorry, that hits a personal note. My husband died this year right after we’d held a firepit fundraiser in the gardens. That’s been extremely hard, but I have found solace in seeing my loss within the natural cycles of life and death in the garden. I think that’s one of the most valuable lessons learned in a natural setting. I don’t think you find that comfort in a fabricated environment. You gain perspective through the natural world. But horticulturally for the gardens, we did lose a very large Scarlet Oak to disease this year, and that has taken some time to adjust to it’s absence too.

Does Dunn Gardens offer Special Garden events?

Robin: Dunn has several fundraising events each year. Can you tell me a bit about each of them. For instance, when do they occur, what do they cost, how much do they raise for the garden fund, who are some of the artists in the art tour/wineries in the wine tour/etc, and how can I attend?

Friends Enjoying Wine at the Dunn Gardens Tasting Fundraiser Tour in 2008

Sue: I’d counsel checking the website for all the details.

Tell us about the Design & Development of Dunn Gardens…

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

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.

Who Owns Dunn Gardens?

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

Who cares for the garden & how much time does this garden take to care for?

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.

Take us on a Dunn Gardens Tour of Rhododendrons!

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

Do you sell plants?

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.

What excites you most about Dunn Gardens?

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

Are there Secret Gardens to look for?

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.

Should we look for wildlife on Dunn Gardens Tours?

Robin: What wildlife visits the gardens regularly and do you have difficulties with any of them?

Sue: Ah, the moles plague Roger and Zsolt. Coyotes do visit periodically. We often see eagles perching or being harassed by the crows, and there are many small birds and hummingbirds throughout the garden. Glenn and Charles’ cat Tabby rules the roost though. Tabby is the spoiled king of the Dunn Gardens. His finest hour was walking very proudly through an evening lecture with a bird in his mouth (catch and release).

What kinds of donations does Dunn Gardens need?

Robin: If I wanted to make a non-cash donation to help Dunn Gardens, is volunteering my time the best way to do so? And/or, do you have a donation wish list?

Sue: Come be a docent! The camaraderie, the chance to learn this fantastic collection, field trips, classes with Glenn and Charles, are all very, very rewarding. We’re building a relationship with Seattle Works, so it’s possible to volunteer to work here in the gardens as well. We’d like to build more volunteer opportunities, so watch the website as we begin to formalize that opportunity too.

When is it possible to go on a Dunn Gardens Tour in person?

Robin: I know the gardens are closed during a few months of the year. Why is this, and what are the closure dates?

Sue: The gardens close for the month of August, just to give all the residents some down time. Then we close the tour season at the end of October, and reopen the first of April. Things are still humming in the garden though, the curators traditionally lecture in November, we hold a Solstice Stroll in December, and our wonderful working board members meet to oversee the objectives of preserving the gardens throughout the year.

Yellow Trillium at Dunn Gardens

Yellow Trillium at Dunn Gardens

Robin: Why doesn’t Dunn gardens offer events like private parties and weddings? (Or does/will it?)

Sue: We’re still a small organization with limited parking and resources, so we’re considering these fund raising options, but want to do so carefully and with respect for our neighbors who have been totally supportive of the gardens. We try to be very careful about our impacts and welcoming at the same time. It’s a bit of a juggle, but I think we do it well. That’s the trick too isn’t it? I love our events and continue to dream up all sorts, but there’s a part too that feels that this is an historic treasure, a hidden gem in our midst, and we should support it so that it can just continue to be.

Want to take more online garden tours?

Check out our online garden tour guide here for more now.

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