Ministry of Controversy, Taking Your Gardening Dollar, Unusually Clever People

The Story Ends Well For Heronswood

Heronswood, the revered botanical garden created in Kingston, Washington by plant collector Dan Hinkley and his partner, architect Robert Jones, as an adjunct to the nursery they founded in 1987, was put up for a sealed bid auction last month by its owner of the last 12 years, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. . . and won by a Native American tribe, the Port Gamble S’Klallam, who have a reputation for careful environmental stewardship and whose ancestral lands include the site of the garden.

Yesterday, I interviewed George Ball, the CEO of Burpee, about the sale.  In 2006, unable to make Heronswood work as a business, Ball closed the nursery and moved the catalog operation to Pennsylvania, where Burpee is headquartered. For this, Ball was pummeled in the press and lampooned on the cover of the Plants Delight Nursery catalog as “George C. Wrecking Ball.”  Though Garden Rant, too, piled on, I always felt the pummeling was unfair.  After all, no one had forced the previous owners to sell.  Yesterday, I interviewed George about his history with the garden and his hopes for its future.

Q: The purchase by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe seems to be a happy ending for Heronswood.

A: I like to call it a happy beginning. We had been talking to the tribe on and off for a few years, but they were tentative. I’m very happy that they emerged as the winner of the auction a few weeks ago.  Working with them since the sale has been like opening the door to an advent calendar. Every day, I learn something new. In their press release, there was language about maintaining the garden not just for the tribe, but for the larger community, that surprised even me.  We’d opened the garden three or four weekends a year to the public to benefit The Garden Conservancy. The tribe has said that they will open Heronswood to the public even more.  They haven’t yet announced how they are going to use the garden.  They are in the planning process, which is good.  I have been very impressed at the long-range view they are taking and the care.

Q: How did you wind up buying Heronswood in 2000?

A: It was a great match for Burpee. We have been in the perennial business for a long time. Mr. Burpee, our founder, was a big perennial guy. But we were doing the broad strokes, while there was a growing interest in les choses belles et étranges. If the customer wants it badly–and as long as it doesn’t mean selling destructive invasives–I’ll see if I can make it a business. Heronswood was a very famous place in the gardening world, and I liked the concept of Dan Hinkley’s collecting, since I’d been on plant collecting trips since I was 14 years old. I was very impressed by the garden. Impressed, impressed, impressed.

On the other side, Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones said that they were tired of the business side of things. Burpee was a big consumer company. There was the idea that Heronswood could go national.

I made a miscalculation in thinking that Heronswood’s plants could go national. I’d bought Heronswood for the plant collection– between 7000 and 8000 taxa. But Heronswood is in a rain forest. I learned that what did well in Heronswood’s wet Zone 8 wasn’t necessarily good in Southern Illinois or Indiana. It was a regional nursery. Now, the mail order business Heronswood had established wasn’t regional. But it was 10 miles wide, three inches deep. The early catalogs had a huge list of plants. But a lot of things, we’d sell four of.

Dan and Robert stayed on as managers. In 2003, I said, “Look, guys, this isn’t working. I’ll sell Heronswood back to you for half of what I paid for it.” It was a great deal. But they refused. So the remaining two and a half years of their consulting and management contracts were strained.

When I moved the nursery, it was for operational efficiency. But we also subjected the plants to aggressive and deliberate adaptation tests in the Heronswood Gardens at Fordhook Farm. We are going to continue to offer under the Heronswood name the really great hellobores, tiarellas, hydrangeas that have more of a national market.

Q: When you closed the Heronswood operation in 2006, I read the New York Times piece about it and was amazed by Dan Hinkley’s statement, “I would much rather see the garden euthanized immediately than to see it decline over several years.”  It seemed remarkably churlish, given that he’d voluntarily taken millions for the place.

A: I was stunned by that statement myself.  Maybe he was saying he’d like to euthanize George Ball.

Q: And yet, according to all reports, you’ve maintained the garden beautifully since then.

A: I love the place. We logged so many hours and so many miles of air travel for it. I sent a guy out there to do the first complete physical inventory of the plants. It took a year to do, since there is a 10-month growing season at Heronswood and the plants don’t all appear at once. I’ve taken great care of the place. We not only preserved the garden in excellent intact condition, the only plants removed even for research purposes were culls. We never removed a single species from the garden. Thousands of people have visited on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days in recent years–and nearly all of them have had their breath taken away.

 

Posted by on July 27, 2012 at 1:29 pm, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Taking Your Gardening Dollar, Unusually Clever People.
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15 Responses to “The Story Ends Well For Heronswood”

  1. maryb says:

    Thanks very much for this story. I have often wondered what happened.

  2. commonweeder says:

    Great story. It makes me feel a lot better about Burpee – and is a lesson not to draw too many conclusions before knowing the whole story. Of course, the media doesn’t always give the whole story which is a problem.

  3. teza says:

    It just shows that green miracles are possible. I dreaded hearing that Burpee [Ball] had purchased it from Daniel Hinkley, a consummate plantsman, hunter and collector. Heronswood is a one of a kind botanical wonder. To read that it was a ‘regional’ nursery only proves the point that George Ball doesn’t have a clue about those collectors, whom Hinkley catered to, that weren’t afraid to dabble in Zonal Denial. I’m Zone 5 and grow a growing number of the very plants that Hinkley introduced via Heronswood. Perhaps now fans and past customers of this wonderful botanical mecca can rest easy!

  4. Chris Baswell says:

    Mr. Hinkley’s churlish streak isn’t news, and seems to go along with his adventurous genius. Heronswood was a fantastic source of rare things, if you didn’t mind often getting smallish plants at a biggish price. It must be exhausting to run a nursery with so big a list — no surprise they don’t usually last long.

  5. Laine says:

    Please read the article in the New York Times–the link is in one of the questions Michele asks. There you will see that Dan Hinkley’s “churlish” remark referred to George Ball’s vision of the gardens as being part of a retirement community development and open to the public. Not too many condos have grounds anything like the Heronswood gardens. Condo owners have to pay for maintenance. How likely would it have been kept up? The retirement community would pay for these public gardens? Seen many condo grounds you would call amazing gardens? That potential situation is what Dan was referring to.

    George Ball made a really bad business decision buying Heronswood. He paid way too much but he offered the money and would you have turned it down? Heronswood was started in 1987. George Ball bought it in 2000 and closed it in 2006. Long time for a small mail order nursery, actually. That he couldn’t make the business profitable was no surprise. It doesn’t take a lot of money to start a nursery but if you buy one, you now have your huge investment determining what your bottom line is. Paying $4.5 million for Heronswood was crazy and asking $11 million when he decided to sell it was even crazier. When offered $1.7 million by the non-profit group PNHC, formed to save the Heronswood gardens, George Ball turned it down. I don’t know what the S’klallam Tribe paid but it was certainly less than $1.7 million. I do appreciate that George Ball maintained the gardens in pretty good shape for all these years. The gardeners who have tended it did the best they could and I am grateful. I visited Heronswood at the end of June after it was announced that the Tribe had won the auction. I was so glad to see that what Dan and Robert had created was now in the hands of a group who would honor it and bring sanity back to the place. I no longer felt sad being there as I had in past visits since the nursery closed and I felt that the land was again in good hands.

  6. Mimi says:

    Heronwood Garden will forever be one of the most unique places, visited on my travels in 2002 with other gardeners, master gardeners and all around wonderful people who expressed such awe that such a magical place existed, full of plants and flowers that were so imaginatively, creatively and knowledgeably displayed. It is not so much land-scaped but a primal, verdant celebration.
    Thank you.

  7. Jean Starr says:

    It’s great to see that such a huge corporation is still about the plants. I’ll be watching for more news about openings of the gardens. This also explains why some of the plants I’d ordered from Herronswood didn’t survive.

  8. George Ball took what was one of the greatest nurseries in the world and basically threw it away. I was a regular visitor to the nursery from its inception to its demise and I have to say that it was a sad day when it closed and left town. At that time George Ball made some statement to the effect that plants had to be hardy basically everywhere in the U.S. to be offered by a national nursery. That is the type of thinking that completely ignored what Heronswood was–a nursery for plant nerds seeking out and trying unusual plants. George Ball was basically telling those of us in the Pacific Northwest with our great gardening climate to only grow things hardy in North Dakota. To my mind he showed absolutely no understanding of the world of those of us who seek out new and unusual plants to try with the understanding that they may or may not be hardy in our climate.
    I have known Dan Hinkley for a long time and have found him to be a kind and great friend. I would never use the word ‘churlish’ to describe him. I think that George Ball is just trying to get a dig in at Dan because Ball made such great mistakes in dealing with Heronswood and the Heronswood garden as described by Laine in a comment above. George Ball should be ashamed of his role in destroying the great treasure that was Heronswood.

  9. George Ball says:

    I think it was the Roman poet Juvenal who said, “Tell the truth laughing”. I’ve got to improve.
    Maryb: Some unvarnished and detailed facts over at http://www.heronswoodvoice.com, with responses and counter-responses: great fun. But Michele nailed it.
    Commonweeder: Thank you very much for your kindness.
    Teza: Vale, citizen! We miss you over at the old bloggie. BTW: I’ve collected plants all over Costa Rica, Honduras, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Arizona. Where have you collected? Also, which Heronswood plants do you grow? I visited your blog acouple years ago and there were a couple I remember you mentioning, but it’s a while ago. Anyway, you and I agree: I was trying to adapt (and still am at Fordhook) for multiple locations. “American
    gardening” is as precise as “European gardening” or “Asian gardning”. That’s why we had to expand, plus we had to relocate the nursery operations, not “close” them. We closed the small retail operation, and you’d thought we sinned. Sorry we have offended you for so long. Relax! The tribe will do well.
    Liane: Actually, I was taken out of context in the NYT, I answered Anne Raver’s question, “What is the happiest outcome in your mind?”, with a detailed description of a small, mid to higher end level retirement home centered around (actually flanking) the gardens—for keen gardeners, rather than golfers, canasta, TV, bridge, etc. I still think it’s a great idea, but i couldn’t get it past the zoning people. The gardens would keep the residents young and vice versa. Perfect solution. Then, not innocently as i later discovered, Anne asked me for more details. Well yes, I replied, it would take a specialist developer. And well yes, Anne, I suppose it would be a small condo unit, but i’m not an expert. She then surgically disfigured mty answer and the words, :condo” and “development” are all anyone read or remembered and it became urban legend and went “viral” as much as garden stuff can. Lie the gardens are “ruined”. Tell that to the tribe. As for the rest, it’s very bad on the past 6 years. The PNHC stuff is lies. And your sources for 200 to 2006 are the usual sketcthy stuff. Should get out more. But, yo, thanks for appreciating that the Port gamble S’Klallam were so bold in their purchase.
    Mimi: Beautiful! In da house!
    Jean: Did you just get up from a nap? Were you partying last night? The PGST own it now. We sold it to them. Please go to their excellent website for updates. And stay sweet.
    Linda: I didn’t “take” it; I bought it for an unprecedented premium. So, shoot me! Then I allowed the founders to manage it under contract for five years. We didn’t have a heavy hand on them. You enjoyed it from 200 to 2006 Treasure those memories and look forward to new ones. I never “destroyed”
    anything, and particularly not Heronwswood. Again, I bought it well over a year before 9/11, from the founders who sold it. Also, I did not use the word, “churlish”. Heck, I even had to look it up! And try to get another fact straight: the “great treasure” is intact. I held Open Houses for the past six years, and employed gardeners from over 3,000 miles away to keep the place weed and disease free. The Tribe bought it proudly. Please go see it. You’ll love it again, I’m sure.

    Michele: Yo! How do spammers get on your site?

  10. George Ball in his reply to my comment seems to confuse the Heronswood garden with the Heronswood Nursery. It is the nursery that I accuse him of throwing away. It matters not that he bought it. People buy things all the time and then throw them away. To the extent that the nursery exists today, it is not the same nursery–I do not know of any plant geeks who would now shop there–it has nothing to offer to us. It is as if a giant conglomerate buys a much beloved store offering gourmet delights and then makes it into a Safeway, ceasing to offer the delights that made it much loved in the first place.

  11. George Ball says:

    Linda: Not so! We relocated the nursery to PA. We did great business with many other plant enthiusiasts than you and your friends. We held Open Houses with speakers, workshops, rare plant auctions, guided tours and rare plant sales at our new location in Doylestown. We held an average of three Open Days a year from 2006 to 2012 at the original gardens in Kingston, with all gate proceeds going to The Garden Conservancy’s efforts both regionally and nationally. That would be charity. We continued research and plant exploration to such an exrtent that we have as amny plants coming out now and in the next several years as we had to offer during the time we operated it in Kingston. So, please, don’t tell me I “destroyed” anything. And, if you do not mind my saying so, you seem interested in presenting opinions as facts. You might say that we bought a “gourmet” plant store, in your analogy. And that means we made changes because, yes, we may seem to you a bit like Safeway. I do not mind the analogy, personally. because it is just one person’e analogy. No, it was not one “gourmet” store buying another “gourmet” store in your mental scheme. At that price I can guarantee it. But certainly we did not “destroy” Heronswood, or “throw it away”. When the Tribe expressed an interest in the whole thing, we said yes. Again, I suggest you check your facts with the PGST. Also, the nursery isn’t a bit confused in anyone’s mind in Kingston. It’s back in local hands now. Burpee made that happen. Accept a positive outcome. You are aware that the tribe bought both the garden and the nursery, aren’t you? I hope so. There has been some confusion about that. Especially among, of all people, the locals. And thanks for you business, 2000 to 2006.

  12. In reply to Georg Ball’s latest volley–I thought I was expressing my opnion in a mild mannered way that the essence of the Heronswood Nursery has been thrown away. That opinion still stands despite Ball’s many heated words. I do not know any knowledgable plant person who would not agree with me.

  13. George Ball says:

    Linda: Please, give me a break. Mild mannered? You falsely accuse me of calling Dan churlish, use words such as “destroyed”, “threw away”, “ashamed”, “completely ignorant” and “absolutely no understanding”. You continue speaking definitively, as if you were an expert, in order to create a cartoon version of reality. Sure I’m “heated”—at least you got that right. I stand up for myself and my company.

  14. Cindy McNatt says:

    I remember shopping at Heronswood during the Hinkley days. You could buy the plants, but not take the plant tags. They had a strange system – you had to fill out your own plant tag and leave the original.

    I still have the lime pelargonium “Rosemary Verey” that Hinkley pinched from her garden during a visit.

  15. Rob Woodman says:

    I believe that no one buys a garden or business with the view to destroy it, but instead build on it. All Mr. Ball is guilt of is being a business man who was trying to remodel a company. Sometimes you win and sometimes not. Did we all forget the failing economy too! Many good mail order companies went under, would the same fate effected Heronswood if Mr. Ball wasn’t at the helm? I’m surprised Mr. Ball hasn’t said more on the unjust persecution his received, well at least from what I’ve read. I’ve worked in similar conditions where the ghosts of the past come out and haunt you. There’s nothing worst than having someone tell you that it’s not as good as it was, disregarding all the hard work has been accomplished. Let face it, it takes money to keep a garden and a person like Mr. Ball has a wealth of resources to call on to get the job done. I wish the new owners the best of luck, you’ll need it with all these hot heads out there giving there two cents worth!

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