A GARDENING LIFE: 1

Daniel J. Hinkley

by THOMAS C. COOPER

photograph by JERRY HARPUR

When traveling in the mountains of Nepal, Dan Hinkley wakes up most mornings wondering what terrors the day holds. Hinkley hates heights, and he has plenty of stories about finding himself halfway along some precipice masquerading as a trail and deciding he cannot go forward or backward and may have to finish out his days perched there on the side of an anonymous mountain. Somehow, though, he talks himself through it, for the simple reason that he will do almost anything and go almost anywhere to see an interesting plant—and, if mere stay-at-home gardeners are lucky, to collect its seed and share the results with us.

Hinkley has traveled far and wide in his search for plants, with a frequency that must warm the hearts of airline executives the world over. In the last five years, in addition to constantly traversing the United States, he has spent time in Chile, China (thrice), Costa Rica, England, Ireland, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, Sikkim, South Africa (twice), Taiwan, Tasmania, Turkey, Vietnam (twice), and Wales. E-mails from him are as apt to come from the comfort of a bullet train in Japan as from a hostel in Vietnam.

What Hinkley has found and introduced—200 plants and counting—has earned him a reputation as one of the premier plant explorers of the modern era. It’s not the reputation, however, or the novelty that excites and motivates him; it’s “the simple pleasure of seeing a plant in the wild, in its native habitat, doing what it should.” His goal as a nurseryman is to get people to make gardens that respect and reflect their surroundings, “re-creating a feel of what plants look like in nature.rsquo;

It’s this appreciation that underlies all his talks here and abroad (roughly 75 a year), his many magazine articles, his books (three so far, and two more in the offing), and his annual essays in the encyclopedic catalog of Heronswood Nursery. For as much as he is a plantsman, Hinkley is equally an educator, trying, as he puts it, “to defuse the mysteries of botany and Latin nomenclature.” Throughout the 240 unillustrated pages of this year’s catalog, he laces detailed plant descriptions with humorous asides, including unabashedly painful puns. Consider, for instance, the heading for a favorite genus, “Vy burn em ven you can just dig dem up and trow dem away,” or the description of Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, which figures prominently in a corner of the Heronswood garden: a “rambunctious, radioactive groundcover” with dimensions of “4 inches by 1.5 miles.” But do not mistake a light touch for indifference. He knows each plant better than most people know close relatives. And he is quick to discard plants that do not perform or that pose a risk to native habitats.

The 51-year-old Hinkley has a quick, relaxed laugh. His speech is deliberate and gentle, his conversation, self-effacing. He grew up in a barren part of northern Michigan among nongardeners. But he started growing vegetables, “the only type of gardening Lutherans would allow—there had to be a purpose,” and just kept on going. He received a degree in ornamental horticulture and horticulture education from Michigan State University and then earned a master’s degree in urban horticulture from the University of Washington. “About the only hiatus in my passion for gardening was when I was studying horticulture,” he recalls.

After a stint of formal teaching of horticulture, he and his partner, Robert Jones, moved to Kingston, Washington, in 1987 and began clearing and planting the world-famous Heronswood gardens, which now extend over seven acres and comprise roughly 10,000 plants. And they launched their nursery of the same name.

Hinkley and Jones have recently moved into a new home, Wind-cliff, which sits on a bluff high above the Puget Sound (but not so close as to make Hinkley nervous). Unlike the wooded glades of Heronswood, the new property is an open, blank slate. Hinkley describes the move as “a 180 degree change. It’s a brand new palette of plants for me—full-blasting sun, and I’m planting all sorts of drought-tolerant plants: yuccas, agaves, aloes, a lot of grasses.” Many plants from earlier collecting trips will finally get a chance to play a role, and Hinkley will attempt to put into practice the lessons gleaned from a lifetime of observing nature. He will, he says, eschew contrivance and rely evermore on foliage.

When he’s not gardening, he will likely be collecting. And is there a holy grail that attracts him? “No. It doesn’t matter if it’s a brand new plant. Oftentimes it’s most exciting to see a plant you’ve known before growing in a place it belongs.” And he adds, “I’m committed to being a generalist. There are too many great plants out there.” H

The second in a two-part series

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