Windcliff, by Daniel J. Hinkey

I’ll admit it, I was a Heronista.

There is hardly a plants person who hasn’t been influenced by Daniel Hinkley, his Heronswood Nursery, his collections of plants – most raised from seed collected from far off places like the Himalaya or the Andes – the rare plants – even the catalogs – those inch-thick, verbose catalogs that we anxiously awaited for every January to entertain us on long winter nights – catalogs we would reread long before the internet to keep us up late circling items, making wish lists, and hoping that we could order items before they became sold out.

My personal collection of old Heronswood Nursery catalogs.

For those of use who are superfans of Dan Hinkley it’s hard to not continue to mourn the loss of Heronswood Nursery, but moving forward is what this book is all about, and it does so eloquently and usefully. Windcliff feels like Hinkley’s Opus. His 9th Symphony, his reason for being. Its combines everything he has learned over the decades from collecting plants to growing them in other gardens, a palette of knowledge and material to use in this most perfect of locations – high on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound.

Together, it’s all a luxury few of us could ever imagine undertaking, but in Windcliff we can dream and come close to experiencing what it must be like to have such materials and talents within our reach.

It’s hard to write about Dan Hinkley and not romance about the old Heronswood Nursery but I’ll try my hardest to avoid it. Windcliff – A Story of People, Plants and Gardens (Timber Press 2020) tell nearly everything about Dan that we hoped for in a book, (sans Heronswood). In fact, only a page and a half is dedicated to what really happened to the landmark nursery that changed how we garden. Dan doesn’t even go into detail about what actually happened, but we can assume that this is because of some legal reason beyond our control, or simply because he’s bigger than that. Let’s give him a pass and move forward.

Windcliff – A Story of People, Plants, and Gardens (Timber Press) is finally here and it tells the story about how Dan and his husband Robert Jones came to be. It does start early in Dan’s life, recalling days and images from childhood in Michigan all the way through to his University years in Washington State. It touches on Heronswood, but really focuses on everything after that period.

Dan Hinkley redefined American horticulture and gardening, if not global horticulture and botany and any book by Dan is certainly worth the investment. What makes this one so enjoyable it that its not a story about plants, but the story of Dan. It touches on many topics of the plantsman’s life and journey, but mostly organized around the design principles and elements found at Windcliff – their current garden located on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound.

Dan (and his husband Robert Jones a trained architect) created two gardens in their lifetime (Heronswood and Windcliff) as well as the original Heronswood Nursery, now Heronswood Garden – reinvented as a public garden owned and operated by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, of which Dan is has now been appointed Director of. All things come around.

When I finally met Dan a few years ago I asked him why he hasn’t written any books other than his first two (I, like so many of you have been waiting). He replied that first, he didn’t really have time (he was about to leave on his third trip exploring in Vietnam, and that second, the process was always painful – he also added that publishers were aways bugging him to write one. I guess Timber Press won, once again.

This is a wonderful book for any plant person. It’s beautifully illustrated with Australian photographer Claire Takac photos and a few by Dan, and it’s one of those books that is readable (seriously, every night I am reading a chapter), and yes, it’s visually inspiring. Timber Press has also produced another book with excellent quality, from its design and layout, through to the printing and paper quality. I appreciate the typography, the full-page images here and there along with just enough white space and leading – every touchpoint feels balanced and thoughtful throughout.

While I am a gardener growing plants in Zone 5, there are many plants here that I cannot grow (not that that has ever stopped me!) but if you are wondering if this book is inspirational for your garden, I will mention that Dan has many potted plants grouped together on walks and near entries that by themselves are inspiring. While many of the plants are ungrowable here in New England, at least I know that as container plants, I can achieve a similar look (be it a tender shrub from Chile that needs to be wintered over in a cold greenhouse or a bulbous plant I can allow to go dormant and drag into the cellar).

Thank you Dan and Robert for doing it together, and for doing it all right. And Thank you Timber Press for sending me an advance copy, even though I would have bought this one for certain!

About the author

Author, plantsman, and horticulturist living in central Massachusetts.

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