Planting Edmonds: Exploring the native plant demonstration garden

Planting Edmonds is a monthly column written by and for local gardeners.

One of Edmonds’ best-kept secrets is the Native Plant Demonstration Garden next to the Willow Creek Hatchery on Pine Street.

The garden is a permanent exhibit, and it’s included in this weekend’s Puget Sound Bird Fest, which features nature talks, educational exhibits, kids’ activities, a photo contest, guided walks, a native plant sale and even a boat cruise, sponsored by the City of Edmonds and the Pilchuck Audubon Society. See the complete schedule here.

The name Native Plant Demonstration Garden sounds academic, and this is indeed a scientific research site, but it is also a magical park for nature lovers with a hiking trail, a shady forest bower and a marsh full of wildlife.

(Photo by Gary Pyfer)

You start at street level and wander through a sunny bed of flowering natives in their natural habitat.

The sun garden shows off a succession of blooms: native purple lupines, red osier dogwoods, prairie smoke geum, columbine, mountain pride penstemon, a giant silk tassel bush, purple asters next to yellow goldenrod and these wonderful nodding onions that wave at you like old friends.

Volunteer Gary Pyfer has labeled dozens of the plants, so you can see how they look and behave in our habitat and how you can incorporate natives into your landscaping.

Below, volunteer Laura Walls points out a mountain hemlock from Go Natives! Nursery. She also planted a Garry oak that was donated to the garden. Both are slow-growing, and neither will get too big in the roadside’s rocky soil.

Heading down the hill, you’ll wander shady paths to the most amazing secret garden. A centuries-old grand fir towers over an enclave of stumps, snags and ferns. It’s a dark forest that hints at what Edmonds looked like hundreds of years ago. It looks like a gnome village, a wonderland for adventurous kids.

The grand fir that anchors this secret garden was left standing by loggers more than a century ago because it had no commercial value. However, the stumps of cedars and Douglas firs that were cut down for shingles in the 1890s now generate growth of a different kind.

Trees, ferns and wild huckleberries thrive when their roots feed on the dead wood of stumps. City arborists recently cut down a large maple that was in danger of falling, and they left rounds and stumps to be used in the garden as “nurseries” for other plants. Dr. Pyfer calls this “stumpology.” The stumps make nutritious planters for young cultivars.

Volunteers Pyfer and Scott Simpson plant the stumpery. (Photo by Alan Mearns)

Taller stumps, called “snags” are left to rot slowly and provide shelter and food for birds, bees, and other wildlife.

Across the woodland path from the secret garden is a planted garden where older Rhododendron and other non-native species live side by side with natives. Most plants in the garden seed themselves naturally but a few are planted intentionally. For instance, volunteers have planted dozens of Oregon grape bushes throughout the garden.

Drs. Pyfer and Walls manage the garden together. They are not professional horticulturalists but are both lifelong nature lovers. Dr. Pyfer is a retired Shoreline dentist, and Dr. Walls is a retired Notre Dame professor and renowned scholar of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists. It was her love of nature that led Walls to Thoreau in the first place.

Gary Pyfer and Laura Walls

Last year, Walls designed and co-authored a new guidebook titled Birding in Snohomish County & Camano Island: 80 Birding Sites, Parks and Drives from Puget Sound to the Cascade Mountains, published by the Pilchuck Audubon Society in honor of its 50th anniversary.

The Native Plant Garden is a spectacular site for birding, she says, providing food and shelter for towhees, chickadees, juncos, Pacific wrens, a pair of barred owls, warblers, eagles, ospreys, kinglets, long-billed dowitchers, Stellar jays, nuthatches, varied thrush, and song sparrows.

“The hummingbirds go crazy over the red currant,” she says, and “the singing of robins in the evening is just stupendous.”

“The site is a unique and varied habitat for both birds and humans. It provides cover for the birds, so that humans can’t get too close to them, and it’s a haven for walking, meditating, sketching, observing and other human activities. It’s different every day.”

Kids are especially welcome. Various groups host classes in an outdoor classroom by the bird feeders or indoors in the hatchery classroom.

Dr. Walls created a flyer about the garden, which you can access here. Dr. Pyfer is in the process of building a new medicinal garden next to the fish hatchery education center. He has labeled the plants and explains their uses in medicine on the billboard nearby.

Partnerships are key

The Pilchuck Audubon Society and its Executive Director Brian Zinke manage the garden and consider it a prime birding site; it is a place to learn more about the relationships between birds and plants. They plan to run frequent classes there in the future.

Sound Salmon Solutions manages the volunteers (trained and certified by Edmonds Stewards) at all the city parks. They run summer camps at the garden and hatchery and host projects by outside groups. Development and stewardship specialist Brittany Ahmann oversees volunteers and classes at the Native Plant Garden.

The City of Edmonds and the Department of Transportation own the property, and Edmonds Program Coordinator Jennifer Leach contracts with partners to operate the garden. She praises “the stewards who are volunteering there now, who have added a lot of great new features including new signage, walking paths and a medicinal garden.”

Several community organizations use the park for ecology projects.

“I’m always impressed by how welcoming and collaborative they are with other groups in the community who want to use the garden for educational purposes or to complete service projects,” Leach said. “The garden continues to be a true community space.”

Go Natives! Nursery, a commercial nursery in Richmond Beach specializing in Northwest native plants, has provided expertise and many of the native plants. Below, Don Norman and Ingela Wanerstrand of Go Natives! demonstrate proper planting techniques for one of their classes at the garden. The second photo shows Ingela planting a 10-foot vine maple near the driveway.

(Photos by Laura Walls)

A Go Natives! class learned about “live staking,” starting plants from cuttings by sticking them directly in the ground. It works with willow, flowering currant, mock orange and other woody plants.

Live staking.

Edmonds College Horticulture professor Hillary Ethe brought her Restoration Ecology students to the garden for a class project. They had to analyze their sites, identify manageable goals, and source the materials needed to accomplish those goals. Three of the projects they came up with were:

• Designing an interactive space that would appeal to children

• Enhancing the marsh habitat by stabilizing the soil along the tributary creek

• Designing plantings that could thrive beneath a legacy second-growth Western red cedar

The students presented their projects to Pyfer and Walls to be implemented in the future by volunteers.

Edmonds Stewards and volunteer Greg Ferguson host occasional work parties in the garden. Ferguson is a retired salmon restoration engineering consultant; he is responsible for training Edmonds Stewards volunteers.

Edmonds Scout Troop 331 has adopted the garden for one of their community service projects. They created some of the signs throughout the park and recently installed a house for mason bees. According to Dr. Pyfer, “250 mason bees can do the pollinating work of 20,000 honeybees, and three individual mason bees can pollinate a whole tree.”

No article about the Native Plant Demonstration Garden would be complete without paying homage to its founder Susie Schaefer. Susie has retired from active gardening now, but her spirit is everywhere.

She envisioned “a native garden that would attract bees, bats, and birds” and help counter the loss of native habitat in our rapidly developing suburban area. The Native Plant Garden shows us how to choose plants that are adapted to rainy winters and warm, dry summers.

Susie Schaefer. (Photo by Laura Walls)

Susie coordinated with the National Wildlife Federation beginning in 2009 to develop the site as a Wildlife Habitat; she invited regular speakers and coordinated large work parties to plant hundreds of native plants on an unpromising, derelict plot. Volunteers Alan and Bonnie Mearns were involved from the beginning; they say Susie’s famous brownies fueled the volunteers. You can see a video of those early years here.

“The Demo Garden is in the best shape I’ve ever seen it,” says Jennifer Leach. It is a tribute to Susie and those early volunteers that the garden carries on and thrives with a new generation of volunteers.

— Story by Marty Ronish; photos (unless otherwise noted) by Chris Walton, who has worked tirelessly to help restore the Edmonds Marsh.

  1. Thank you for this article. Indeed a best-kept secret! This Demonstration Garden looks to be an amazing resource.

  2. What an inspiring article about a wondrous piece of land and important garden. Thank you, Marty. I’ll be getting myself over from Bainbridge to walk these paths, listen to the birdsong, and take away some ideas for my garden. Edmonds is such a great place!

  3. I am grateful for the many kinds of gardens in our area and for the dedicated people who co-create and maintain these lovely spaces.

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