By Wendy Wallace
Dashing outside even on the rainiest day, guest services assistants Susan Phillips and Bob Hill (aka, “the Gatekeepers”) cheerfully greet visitors to Bloedel Reserve with clipboards in hand. And visitors they have. Celebrating its 25th anniversary, this internationally renowned 150-acre public garden has seen attendance increase 80 percent since doing away with a cumbersome guest reservation system.
Regardless of numbers arriving, the Reserve aims for all its guests to gain a greater appreciation of nature and feel renewed by the end of their visit. Since working at Bloedel, Hill could recall only one irritable guest. “But once he’d walked the grounds, he was the calmest, coolest guy. It really does something to you.”
That sense of nature’s healing presence formed the core of timber mogul and founder Prentice Bloedel’s intention as he created the gardens seen today. He began work on the gardens in 1950, and he and his wife lived on the property from 1951 to 1986. The Reserve’s primary mission is to provide “a tranquil and refreshing experience of nature.” It does so through a unique combination of natural woodlands contrasted with meticulously landscaped gardens, including a Japanese garden, moss garden and reflection pool.
All year, visitors are welcome inside the Bloedels’ 18th-century French manor-style home. Designed in 1930 by young Seattle architect J. Limber Holmes, the house was later renovated by the same, then-prominent Holmes when the Bloedels acquired the property in 1951 as their full-time residence. For more than 30 years Prentice and Virginia Bloedel cultivated the landscaped gardens while living in the home, which showcases the elegant culmination of Holmes’ earlier style and maturing experience.
For its anniversary, the Reserve celebrated throughout the summer with concerts, a community picnic and other events. The Reserve also partnered with Northwest artist Julie Speidel to create an outdoor sculpture exhibit placed strategically throughout the grounds. Inspired by glacial erratic boulders, Speidel intends the 12 pieces to surprise guests as they experience the gardens. The exhibition runs until Oct. 13.
Introducing man-made art into the natural experience is only one of the changes for the Reserve. With the increased foot traffic in recent years, the organization saw a need to improve its ability to welcome while still preserving its deliberate peacefulness. Executive Director Ed Moydell and the board of trustees worked with Bainbridge Island award-winning architect Johnpaul Jones of Jones & Jones Architects to design a blueprint for the next 25 years of the Reserve.
The draft master plan focuses on enhancing the guest experience by installing new trails over 30 acres of previously untouched forest, creating an educational and event space in the sheep sheds, improving the horticultural facilities, and remodeling the Reserve’s main entrance to be more inviting and functional for increasing public demand.
The Reserve strives to balance inevitable growth with Bloedel’s belief “that we humans are trustees in this world, that our power should be exercised in this context.” Community responses, positive and negative, will feed into the plan’s finalization. Whether directed at guests, volunteers or the several horticultural student interns at Bloedel, Moydell aims “to give inspiring experiences in nature.”
Believing the garden belongs to the people of Bainbridge Island, Moydell said the final master plan “will continue the original vision while serving a broader community.” The organization is also getting in touch virtually through its website as well as on Facebook and Pinterest. In addition, Moydell hopes for the creation of an app to provide plant identification information for curious guests while maintaining garden tranquility without added signage on the grounds.
But Moydell is most excited about getting back to the low-tech experience of being in the natural landscape. Taking a machete, Moydell recently marveled as he marched around the untouched 30 acres mapped for new trails. “I can’t wait for people to see what’s out there.”