JARS v62n2 - Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens Turn Dreams into Reality

Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens Turn Dreams into Reality
Kristi O'Donnell
Greenbank, Washington

The year was 1961 when the Ann and Max Meerkerk embarked upon a journey leading them to Whidbey Island to begin the golden chapters of their lives.

"...the Gardens are given for the purpose of actively developing and maintaining a horticulture test and display garden for rhododendrons and companion plants. I have envisioned a careful and methodical development of a peaceful woodland garden, emphasizing rhododendrons and companion plantings. In addition to being of great ornamental value, I would anticipate that the Gardens would be used to test, select, and propagate superior plant materials."
Ann Wright Meerkerk 1979

Ann's dream became reality. The Meerkerks bequeathed their 53-acre woodland garden and forest preserve to the Seattle Rhododendron Society, to be cared for future generations, yet only provided a nest egg of endowment dollars.
In 2002, the Seattle Rhododendron Society could no longer effectively operate the Gardens from a distance, and through a mutual agreement, in accord with Ann's will, Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens became an independent nonprofit organization. Responsibility for raising the dollars vital to adequately care for this unique arboretum, horticultural treasure and sanctuary moved to the local community. During the intervening years, Friends of Meerkerk and the Every Member Rainbow Campaigns have provided capital to make basic safety and esthetic improvements. The Board of Directors acknowledges much more is needed to adequately steward this legacy.
"The Meerkerk endowment funds only 10 percent of the current operational budget. Every year, we must raise 90 percent of the very basic budget from plant sales, Friends of Meerkerk memberships, admission fees, grants and donations," Garden Director Kristi O'Donnell, states.
Dreams became reality in 2007. "Whidbey Island's visionary benefactor, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, made possible the construction of a new gateway entry to the Gardens. Inspired by the Victorian stone folly in the Secret Garden of Highgrove, this portal welcomes visitors from the world-at-large into the "peaceful woodland garden." This in turn energized volunteers to create a new gazebo for weddings, children's classes and music festivals in the Gardens.

The new gatehouse at 
Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens.
The new gatehouse at Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens.
Photo courtesy of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens

2007 also marked the 3rd anniversary of the Gardens' educational program. "Botany Adventure" originated as a hybrid solution between the Greenbank Garden Club and Meerkerk introducing schoolchildren to horticulture and the importance of nature by way of a field trip to Meerkerk's outdoor classroom. The first successful years of Botany Adventure have qualified the Gardens for funding from regional foundations whose interests are educating children about plants and our natural environment, in an outdoor classroom setting. "Our program introduces children to the field of horticulture with hands-on exercises. These kids are eager to learn about hybridizing, photosynthesis, the importance of water to all living things and about our inter-relationships with the plant world and our planet Earth," O'Donnell expresses.
These are milestone accomplishments - and now our Board and volunteers are turning our focus onto Meerkerk's 2008 dream: raising money to pay the people who care for this quality outdoor classroom, living museum, woodland garden, arboretum and forest preserve.
In February of 2008, when the wintry days were creating a craving for blossoms to appear, Meerkerk hosted a very successful "Dreams of Spring" horticultural gala to raise money for the ongoing operations of the Gardens. Nearly 100 guests dined while talking plants and participated in silent and live auctions. "Our community has been very generous in donating stellar items for our auctions", co-chair Penny Harger exclaims. Items ranged from sailboat cruises around the Puget Sound to Frank Fujioka's newest hybrid rhododendron 'Pomegranate Splash'. Funds raised help pay for the Gardens' rhododendron hybridizing program under the direction of horticulturist Oriana Simmons-Otness, who is being mentored by Jim Barlup, Frank Fujioka and Elsie Watson. These dollars pay gardeners who are also teachers, instructing volunteers each week and introducing the general public to our beloved genus Rhododendron .

Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, 
Greenbank, Washington
Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens, Greenbank, Washington.
Photo courtesy of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens

We extend an invitation to members of the American Rhododendron Society to become supporters of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens. You can become a Friend of Meerkerk via our website. Your membership directly pays for the day to day horticultural care of the Gardens. Perhaps you will offer one of your vacation condos or exciting hybrids for our Dreams of Spring auction next year.
Additionally, we ask you to consider Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens as part of your bequest wishes and philanthropic activities. Our goal is to raise an additional $4,500,000 to augment the endowment fund in order to provide revenues for garden maintenance, programs and administration.
We hope to see you in the spring of 2009 for the ARS Annual Conference, a year that shares the 30th anniversary of the Gardens being open to the public. If you are visiting the Pacific Northwest this spring, please get in touch. We'd love to meet you face to face and share with you this important legacy.

Kristi O'Donnell is the executive director of Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens.