The Secret Gardens Of Guemes Island -- Early Explorers Named It, Farmers Worked It, Now Summer Vacationers Give A Floral Quality To This Quiet Place In The San Juans

GUEMES ISLAND IS itself a bit of a secret. One of the southerly islands of the San Juan chain, only a five-minute ferry trip across the Guemes Channel from Anacortes, its population of about 500 people swells to maybe a couple of thousand in the summer.

It boasts one small fishing resort on North Beach, consisting of a row of cabins and the island's only swimming pool. Just this summer, after years of controversy, a store and single gas pump have opened up near the ferry landing. The little Skagit County ferry holds 23 cars when packed just right, and will come back for you if you get left behind on the dock.

We have been spending long weekends and summer vacations at a little old cabin on the west beach of Guemes Island for more than 25 years. Renowned for its smooth sand and long sunsets, west beach looks out toward the large hump of Cypress Island and Bellingham Channel. Foreign freighters steaming back and forth to Canada pass through the channel, as well as harbor seals, river otters, herons, eagles and pods of killer whales. Raccoons, chipmunks and hummingbirds hide amid the banks of wild roses, and one memorable evening a huge tailless feral cat stalked by the cabin windows.

Discovered by Capt. George Vancouver in 1778, Guemes was named a few years later by Spaniard Don Francisco Eliza, after the Mexican viceroy who financed his explorations. Guemes has long been known, however, as Dog Island. The Indians of Guemes raised a breed of white, long-haired dogs with fur as thick as sheep's wool, which they clipped and wove into clothing and blankets. Early explorers commented in their journals about the number of these dogs - which reminded them of Russian sled dogs - seen throughout the villages and in the canoes of the Guemes Indians.

By the early part of this century the great Native American celebrations, attracting guests from as far away as Vancouver Island to a potlatch house on west beach rumored to be 900 feet long, were over. The forests had been cleared, and Guemes was becoming a farming community. Fertile soil supported orchards, berries and vegetables; dairy and poultry farms flourished.

Not all has been tranquil, however. In the 1960s an aluminum company sought to rezone one of the most beautiful areas of Guemes for heavy industry to build a reduction mill. Attorney John Ehrlichman of Watergate notoriety is famous on Guemes for taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court, at which point the aluminum company decided to look elsewhere for a site. Many island cars still sport peeling bumper stickers reading "Wrap Your Sushi in Cabbage," left over from a successful fight against a nori farm proposed for the waters off North Beach.

The Garden Island

Today Guemes' 7.96 square miles are intersected by a figure-eight loop of road, leading to farms in the center of the island, with year-round homes and cabins dotting the shorelines. On a little wooded road paralleling the south shore of the island is the turnoff to a long gravel driveway leading to the garden of Joan and Rick Petrick and their three children. In April, thousands of daffodils line the narrow drive, but by midsummer roses, clematis, vegetables and perennials are the show.

"I had a vision where I open a gate and walk into a cottage garden," says Joan. Eight years ago she brought to Guemes several loads of perennials in pots, where they stayed for nearly three years. The first task was to cut down one of the big trees (another one obligingly fell down) to create a sunny clearing, build a deer fence and then begin to build a house. One acre out of their nine is now in an intensely cultivated garden that surrounds their home, including a large area of raised vegetable beds.

The Petricks began by laying out hoses to outline planting beds around the big maples and cedars. Joan and a friend gathered cuttings from old roses they found in Anacortes and Monroe. She nurtured the cuttings in pots, transplanting them into the garden as 2-year-old plants. Now roses foam and twine over the 6-foot-high deer fence that surrounds the garden, hiding the chicken-wire from view in a solid wall of foliage and fragrant flower.

The garden is a family effort, with son Noah having a little garden of his own, guarded over by a stone dragon. The pond in front of the house, surrounded by rocks from the close-by beach, was a teenage daughter's school project.

An old strain of pink and white late-blooming phlox was a gift from a gardener friend in Monroe. The most fragrant of the flowering tobaccos, Nicotiana sylvestris, happily self-seeds in the rich soil, as do poppies and feverfew. Hardy geraniums, lupines, lavender and stately silver cardoons grow in riotous abandon, helped along by horse manure. In late summer and early fall, the Petricks haul in a sawdust-and-manure mix from island farms. Joan spends every weekend from October through February clipping back and mulching, spreading the manure 6 to 8 inches deep throughout the garden.

"After midsummer I stop watering, except for the vegetables, and just let the garden go, so I can spend time with the kids and go swimming," smiles Joan, who's a school teacher; this gives her time to both relish the garden at its peak, and relax and enjoy her vacation.

Borders full of favorites

Set up a bit higher up onto the same hillside and looking south toward Guemes Channel is the garden of Audrey and George White. Audrey has a different strategy to manage the amount of time devoted to gardening her 10 acres of property. "I wanted to put in a little border by the house for us to enjoy," she explains.

"But the little border kept growing; it didn't hold enough plants."

George finally built a split-rail fence, which Audrey was not to garden beyond. However, a large pond dug this spring and surrounded by plantings rests just outside the fence line.

Audrey is busy with garden outreach work; as a Master Gardener, she answers gardening questions at clinics and runs a children's garden in Anacortes. Despite borders inching ever outward, she needed an easily manageable home garden. "Stick to what you really like, and let that be the guide," she advises. All the shades of green, variegation, and especially silver-leaved plants are her favorites. She tries to limit herself to perennials, shrubs and herbs; however, there is a large vegetable garden on a slope to the south of the house, a wisteria vine and some climbing roses.

The Whites' house was built by their son nine years ago, using pegs instead of nails in traditional timber-frame construction. It is nestled back into the hillside, with a surround of fir and cedar trees, and distant views to the Cascade Mountains and the Guemes ferry crisscrossing the channel. The first layer out from the house is a level lawn and patio, then the border, split-rail fence, and a grassy slope down to the trees. Beyond the fence at the crest of the slope is a ring of huge clumps of red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria), lighting up the dark evergreen background.

In such a woodsy setting, deer problems are inevitable. Audrey lists plants that have survived and even thrived despite frequent deer forays: hellebores, astilbe, buddleia, artemisia, lavender, plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) and smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria).

A succession of color

Down a long, curved grassy lane a few miles to the west, Duanne Rogers struggles with a different set of garden problems. You would think she is gardening in heaven itself when you round the last corner of the drive and see her little greenhouse surrounded by flowers, thickly planted borders, a pond outside the back door, and in the distance the intensely blue waters of Puget Sound. But deer munch here as well, and this spring a river otter nearly destroyed her pond in an overnight guerrilla raid.

Still, the major challenge is the beautiful site itself, high above the water. Cold, drying winds blow down Bellingham Channel, and pale plants disappear because of the view and the scale, says Rogers. She uses whites and bright hot colors as well as plants with variegated foliage to show up against all the green.

Rogers and her husband have owned these seven acres for 25 years. A decade ago they tore down the old farm cottage to build their present house, and started to bulldoze the tangle of blackberries. "That is how it started," says Rogers. "I like plants and moved them around, and just learned as I went."

Now the five acres between road and house are wooded, with the two acres around the house and out to the bluff a cultivated garden. Wide colorful borders flank the large lawn and the mouth of the drive, where daylilies and foxglove mix with the many unusual plants Rogers collects.

Three years ago the Rogerses added a pond outside the back door, digging it 3 feet straight down, in an attempt to protect fish and plants from predators. "Flowers are so here and gone," Rogers says. "I've tried to choose plants with lots of pleasing textures," she explains of the lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), variegated figwort (Scrophularia aquatica `Variegata'), Jerusalem sage (phlomus fruticosa), bronze fennel and yellow-striped ornamental grass, Miscanthus sinensis `Zebrinus,' at water's edge.

On the other side of the house, along the edge of the bank, is the hot border. Plants here have been chosen to catch your eye despite the spectacular view beyond, as well as to stand up to dry, chilling wind. Self-seeded poppies, Verbena bonariensis, foxtail lilies, yarrow, sea holly (Eryngium), ornamental grasses, shasta daisies and lavender have thrived in this difficult spot. The warm, bright colors and long bloom of daylilies have been particularly successful here; `Chicago Fire,' tomato red with a yellow stripe, is a favorite.

Rogers chooses plants for easy care, and a succession of color. Most are perennials and self-seeded annuals, with drought-tolerant shrubs such as variegated yucca, cistus, barberry and caryopteris mixed in for structure. Winter interest is not a consideration; Rogers and her husband teach skiing in Sun Valley in the winters, returning to Guemes Island in late spring and staying through autumn.

As you drive or bike the country roads of Guemes, you are surrounded by a natural landscape of wild roses, ocean spray and wild cherry. If you are out in early morning or on toward evening, you might catch sight of eagles, deer, heron or even the forbiddingly ugly turkey vulture. The beaches are strewn with agates, especially the amber-colored ones said to be found only on Guemes. And hidden from sight down long wooded lanes are gardens that equal the spectacular natural beauty of this lesser-known San Juan island.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Her e-mail address is Gary Settle is picture editor for Pacific Northwest magazine.