Interview with Jane Groppenberger
Island Arts interviewed local gardener Jane Groppenberger because we believe gardening is one of many forms of art. She has experience as a professional gardening contractor, implementing many landscape designs over the years, and as a long-term gardener at the Johnson Farm property of the Anderson Island Historical Society.
We started out by asking Jane to give us a little background
IA: Jane, why don’t you start by giving us a little snapshot of your career, when you came to the island.
Jane: David, my husband, and I came to visit the Northwest in 1967. And we said to each other, “Boy, we’re going to have to come back here.” In 1988, we did. We were living in Boston at the time. David decided it was time for us to move. He was teaching in a private school for children with special needs. I was a social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital in the neurology ward. But when we came out here and saw the environment I said, “I have to be part of the environment.” And, thus, my desire to garden grew and it became my occupation. I attended South Seattle Community College in their horticulture program.
Once done with the program I worked with my horticultural friend who I met at the college. From there we began work in Seattle in many gardens. That’s how it all began and we gained jobs by word of mouth!
IA: Had you played around with gardening when you lived on the East Coast?
Jane: Not at all. We’d never had a garden living in an apartment on the East coast. Once in the Northwest I was surrounded by beauty of the mountains and the woodlands covered with large Douglas fir, Hemlocks, Alpine Firs, Cedars, and Western White Pines and lower growing shrubs and ground covers, such as ferns, Salal, Vacciniums, and Mahonias growing naturally. However, my favorite native woodland plant is the Vacciniun parvifolium, known as Red Huckleberry. Well, that’s what got me to want to learn more about the environment.
IA: Was the horticulture program at SSCC a credential program or a degree program?
Jane: It is a degree program. From there I had to get my nursery license and my contractor’s license along with my bond . My business partner and I began the contracting business in 1989 in Seattle.
IA: When you moved here did you immediately start working with the Historical Society?
Jane: In 1988 I got my Historical Society garden plot and I’ve had it ever since. That was even before we lived on the island permanently, although we did have property here.
IA: I’m interested in two things. One is your professional gardening work and the other is your role here at the Farm. In terms of professional gardening can you describe what you did? I remember we were talking once and you told me that you would implement a plan that somebody designed (landscape design). Did you ever do design work?
Jane: Yes. One of the things you have to do is work with the clients very closely to determine exactly what they’re looking for in terms of a design, the kind of plants they like and how they want to use their property. This would include structures such as patios, decks or trellises, etc. We would lay out the designs on velum for a blueprint. Of course, doing such a detailed design would depend on the size of the area to be planted. Some jobs did not require such detailed work.
We’d have to determine if we’d be able to do all the work ourselves or we’d have to hire specialty subcontractors to do the heavy work described above. We worked with the same contractor for years to do all the heavy work like improving soil, installing rocks and planting trees that we were unable to do. That’s why I needed to get my landscape architecture license to work with him. He did the harder physical work we were unable to do.
IA: I don’t want to take you off the thrust of this. When you’re talking about landscape design it seems like you’re almost an artist.
Jane: I’ve always seen gardening as art. It is the slowest performing art I have to admit.
IA: It just seems when you’re designing something you have to visualize it in terms of what kind of shrubs you’re using, what type of plants you’re using.
Jane: Working on the site with the owner makes it a lot easier to make those decisions. Also, relationships with and visits to nurseries is most helpful including wholesale nurseries where plant choices are more extensive.
IA: It also seems like you have to visualize what it’s going to look like in 10 years, too.
Jane: That’s another thing, getting the right plants in the right place. And you do have to “edit” now and again. And that’s why it’s such a slow-performing art. It becomes a problem when plants do not grow as described. But that is a challenge.
IA: Is it a hard task to visualize what a garden is going to look like? Did you run into people who had a hard time visualizing? Or generally did you work with people who just love landscape design and love the outdoors and so they are more visual?
Jane: Actually, that’s rare. Most of the time they were just interested in renewing their landscape. Some of them did work in their garden, some of them did not. And that makes all the difference in the world.
IA: It’s harder?
Jane: It’s not as hard. It’s our opinion that counts. You want to make sure if you’re working with someone who’s going to be working in their garden, you want to work very closely with them, give them an idea of the plan. A lot of times they didn’t have all the existing plants they wanted. It’s really a matter of close communication. It’s a real issue when you’re designing gardens.
IA: What are the common design factors you have to take into account if you have a blank slate or even if you’re refurbishing someone’s backyard? What are the factors that you have to take into account so you can get the plan done? What did that involve?
Jane: Creating the design of the beds. Determining structures or hardscapes that would be installed first. When determining your garden beds, you have to include exceptional soil. I am an organic gardener. My first goal in creating gardens is producing healthy soil. I do not use chemical fertilizers or other chemicals. Feeding the soil with natural materials such as kelp meal, feather meal, blood meal, and dolomite lime to name a few. To increase the soil’s existing nutrients I use compost.
IA: So, you emphasized environmentally friendly practices?
Jane: Yes, we used a lot of compost. It was from Cedar Grove (https://cedar-grove.com/). Their compost is made from yard waste; it’s the closest thing to something that’s natural. Their compost is heated to 1600. It really kills anything that would be harmful to plants and whatnot. That’s why I always went there.
I now go to the County (Pierce County) and they’re doing yard waste as well. Of course, everything there is free for the Farm. Very generous of them.
IA: You said something about a landscape architect license. Do I have that right?
Jane: I wasn’t a landscape architect; I was a contractor. I had a nursery license and a contractor’s license. But not a landscape architect because an architect requires a bachelors or master’s degree.
IA: Flipping over to the (Johnson) Farm, we now have the Archival Building, and you and Jeanne (McGoldrick) designed the gardening plan?
Jane: Partially. The County required a plan and they made requirements. But I didn’t go along with all of them.
IA: (Laughs) Was that a philosophical difference or . . .?
Jane: Yes, probably, and a knowledge of plants.
IA: A superior knowledge I’m sure.
Jane: I did make a mistake, though. I planted a shrub, Cornus (dogwood) called “Midwinter Fire”. I know that Cornus are not deer-resistant. Jeanne and I talked about it recently and we’re going to try to deal with it. In any event, they’ve eaten them down to the ground.
IA: Oh really. So, there are some plants the deer like and they’re going to have to be removed?
Jane: Yes, I think removed. Still, the other thing that Jeanne was thinking but I don’t think it will work, that we enclose them and let them grow up. We did plant native Dogwood trees here, but because they are large the deer are not bothering them. They’re mature.
IA: When the leaves are far enough off the ground it draws them?
Jane: No, it doesn’t draw them. What we planted was a shrub Cornus(dogwood). Unfortunately, they’ve never grown to their normal height because of the deer. That’s something I have to deal with.
IA: I’m totally untrained but what I see around the perimeter of the building is lovely. I think it’s beautiful.
Jane: Most of the things are.
IA: It looks very, I don’t know, tailored is not the right word. It’s not formal. It’s very appropriate for the building and the surroundings. It’s lovely. It really is. I would imagine this is what gives you a lot of satisfaction, seeing people enjoying what you’ve worked so hard on.
Jane: A lot of people have said that to me. I’m very grateful. But I do have to do something about the deer eating the Cornus shrub. They are deciduous and they have sort of reddish branches. It’s called Red Twig Dogwood as I mentioned above and they can grow up to about 8 ft. tall but because of the deer enjoying them, they’re only about two feet.
IA: Your business was Northwest Urban Gardening, is that right?
Jane: Yes, NW Urban Gardener.
IA: You did that for how long?
Jane: From 1989 to 2009 or 2011, I can’t remember.
IA: So, about 21 or 22 years. And you were commuting from Anderson Island
almost the entire time. And you would go up to Seattle during the week and stay and come home on the weekends.
Jane: I did have a place to stay in Seattle.
Jane: But I have to admit I only did it 3 days a week.
IA: What were some of the most challenging projects that you worked on? Not necessarily in a bad way.
Jane: I think one of them was where there was a tremendous slope down to a driveway and I decided to create a wall. Obviously, I couldn’t build it myself; I had to hire that out. But I chose broken concrete and it turned out beautifully.
IA: You mean chunks of concrete?
Jane: They were all about this big (about 12” wide by 4” thick by 6” deep). They piled just beautifully.
IA: That’s a good use of it.
Jane: It was. I liked it, but I never used it again. Any stones we used we got from a yard in Issaquah. We did wonderful patios with Pennsylvania Blue Stone, the most beautiful flagstone. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. Organic shapes. I loved it so much, we had our contractor install this stone for our backyard patio. The company’s name is Marenakos Rock Center, Issaquah (https://marenakos.com/).
IA: It’s a harder stone, splits on a seam like a slate does?
Jane: Yes. It’s only about 3” thick. However, a cement saw was used to cut it create tight patios.
IA: It’s like a flagstone but a different kind of material.
Jane: It has a variation of color that really adds to the patio. That’s all we ever used unless cement pavers were desired which we purchased at Mutual Materials (https://www.mutualmaterials.com/). They also have various stones for walls as well. As far as challenging is concerned it was a matter of determining what worked best for a given situation. It takes time and discussion.
IA: Aside from your garden plot here and the gardening around the Archival Building have you been involved in an overall gardening plan at the Farm?
Jane: There are existing gardens which I have been involved in caring for including the Memorial Garden, the garden around the house and the gift store garden. Other people have assisted with these gardens with me.
IA: Do you think there’d be any benefit in having something like an overall gardening plan?
Jane: It would take a gardening committee to determine other gardens. Another area that can be planted is behind the Archival Building against the fence by the community gardens. We would need to choose plants that didn’t screen the gardens but that can be accomplished. Drought tolerant plants would be best for easy care.
IA: Has there been any discussion at the Farm about putting in a sculpture garden or anything like that?
Jane: Not that I’m aware of. What brings that up? Jeanne, Val and I could have a discussion about that idea on our own and make a presentation. I don’t think we need permission to look at a bigger picture here but will need the board’s approval for such an addition. It is hard to consider such an addition since this is a farm.
IA: What would you say are some of the benefits of having the community garden?
Jane: It brings people together. I think being able to talk with your neighbors, your gardening neighbors, and others there is a blessing. To me that’s a real benefit. I’ve had that garden plot since 1988. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to give it up. I really don’t. People do need a garden to grow crops due to lack of sun at their homes and deer problems. What better place than a farm!
IA: It seems like a real serious gardener like yourself always has something to do in the garden. When planting occurs until the harvest it’s the time when the Farm is the most alive. You’ve got 5, 6, 8 people out there, working in their gardens, everything is beautiful. Whenever we have someone come out to the island for the 1st time it’s at the top of the list of things to do, when everything is in bloom. We drive through the Farm and everyone is just stunned at how gorgeous the garden is.
Jane: Especially the Dogwood that I planted in the Memorial Garden. People just love that one. It’s a cross between Cornus nittallii, our Western native dogwood and C. florida the Eastern Dogwood. Its varietal name is “Eddie’s White Wonder.” The Memorial Garden is in honor of William K. and Jessie Noland Sperry and Neil and Jennie Anderson by BMae and Randy Anderson who donated funds to drill the irrigation well in memory of their parents and grandparents.
Jane: I think they probably want to know that. By the way, we maintain all the gardens in the Historical Society, including the one by the Gift Shop. You probably hadn’t noticed that the Manzanita which I planted there has bloomed in the winter and is attracting Hummingbirds right now. It’s a beautiful plant. Anyway, it’s drought tolerant. It doesn’t need any water during the summer. Anything I put in that garden doesn’t need any water. I enjoy introducing new
plants to watch their growth.
IA: Two things are flashing through my mind. You know we do the art journal (The Islander) a couple of times a year. It might be interesting to do a short article with pictures of the garden, the community garden, and maybe a short article on the history of community gardens in this country. They had the Victory gardens during the war and where did they come from and narrow it down to how did the community garden develop here.
Jane: I don’t know how long these community gardens (at the Farm) have been in existence other than the new ones that were just put in two years ago.
IA: We make a point of looking at community gardens when we’re out and about. And I think the island has one of the most incredible gardens that I’ve ever seen. I’m sure you’ve seen them internationally. It’s like a living classroom when you look at it.
Jane: That’s one of things that I wrote down here. We probably should have a garden set up at the school for the kids to garden in, to begin at an early age and value that.
IA: There’s so much that they could learn in . . . where their food comes from . . . just the tactile experience of working with the soil, learning the process from start to finish, planting and caring for and harvesting. Just straight biology, all the things they could learn.
Jane: Is there room at the school to do that? That would be wonderful!
IA: They’ve got acres there, they’ve got all kinds of room at the school for a garden. When Karen (Wilson) was here she had that little area fenced for deer protection and they’ve got the location to actually do a garden. I read an article the other day that said there are teachers working online who have “resorted” to gardening to get an understanding of biology so the kids are getting plants, they’re looking at the soil, doing all sorts of things that, if they’d been in the classroom, they wouldn’t necessarily have done. It’s funny, people are isolated, and they’re relying on gardening.
Jane: I’d love to see that happen here.
IA: What are some of the memorable gardens you’ve been to? Maybe you could expound on that a little bit. What makes them so memorable in your eyes?
Jane: One of them was Chanticleer in Pennsylvania (https://www.chanticleergarden.org/) because it was set up so beautifully. They had all the information on the plants in these beautiful little wooden structures. Every structure was different. You just opened the door and got the
information out and read about the garden area you were looking at. We found out all about the plants. That was the best thing I’ve seen. Chanticleer was designed very well. Another one is Sissinghurst in England (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle-garden/) created by Vita Sackville West. Another one is Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania (https://longwoodgardens.org/) and, of course, the Bellevue Botanical Gardens in Bellevue, WA (https://bellevuebotanical.org/) is well worth going to. And also the Rhododendron Species Foundation has a beautiful garden in Federal Way, WA. (https://rhodygarden.org/).
Of course, they sell lovely rhododendrons; it’s where I go to look for unique rhododendrons. I like rhododendrons that have interesting leaves, good form, some of which with leaves that have indumentum underneath and they have a little fuzziness on top when they first come out. Another one is Rhododendron edgeworthii, a favorite of mine, which has a handsome texture to the leaves. I love them and I can give you one because I have propagated them. Another Rhododendron I love is Rhododendron. Lorderi, “King George”, with light pink and very fragrant flowers.
IA: We’re very good at killing rhododendrons. Not intentionally, we’re just not very good rhododendron gardeners. And we love them, we just love them.
Jane: There are so many varieties. Providing well drained soil with compost and regular moisture when first planted will give them a great start. Do visit Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way.
IA: I’d say if you want to eliminate a variety of rhododendron on the island give it to us. It will be gone.
Jane: I don’t think I know of any.
IA: You mentioned gardens as far away as England, didn’t you take a trip to Japan, a garden tour sort of trip?
Jane: How did you know that?
IA: I remember you talking about it a while back. It was a big deal. You were talking about it at one point. Did you end up going to Kyoto?
IA: It’s known as the garden city, correct?
Jane: That was my favorite place.
IA: I went there in 1966. It smells like a garden. It’s unbelievably lush for a big city. That was a long time ago, of course, but I remember it had a reputation for its gardens. What did you enjoy about that trip?
Jane: I’m going to have to go back and look at my notes. I forgot about that trip.
IA: It just seems that Japanese gardening is different (than ours).
Jane: It is very different, very formal in many cases. I’m going to have to go back to be able to answer those questions.
IA: If I was going to describe their gardening, it seems formal like you say but it also seems minimalist in many ways compared to Western styles.
Jane: So many plants were sheared. I was most impressed with Acer.
IA: One thing about Japanese gardening is that “the garden” is everything in the space, not just the plants, the rock . . .
Jane: They also have little sculptures. The one thing they had so well done is the pruning of the Japanese Maples that are mounding. They were gorgeous. They’re not easy to maintain. You have to prune them in the Winter so that you see its structure because what you’re trying to do is create a beautiful structure.
IA: So, you have to see the structure when the foliage is not there? You can visualize what it’s going to look like when the foliage comes back?
Jane: Yes. You don’t want any dents.
IA: Why is that?
Jane: Because then you don’t see the elements of the tree, the structural elements. Even with the leaves on you usually do see the whole structure. I’ve never been able to . . . I’ve never had a tree like that. I haven’t had to worry about that.
IA: Aside from the Bellevue Botanical Garden and Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way are there any other local gardens you recommend?
Jane: I don’t know of any others beside the landing garden which is attached to the Species Foundation because they have the Japanese Bonzais.
IA: Have you been up to British Columbia to some of the gardens up there, Butchart Gardens (https://www.butchartgardens.com/)?
Jane: Yes, I’ve definitely been there.
IA: Do you have a particular favorite painting that has to do with gardening?
Jane: Yes, I took a photograph. I’ve been very appreciative of Jean Emmons. She lives on Vashon Island and I’ve just enjoyed her work. She has a website ((https://jeanemmons.com/). She has a way of doing paintings that’s rather remarkable. (Shows photo of Emmons’s work to us.)
IA: Oh gosh. So beautiful
Jane: So detailed.
IA: Northwest Woodland Wildflowers.
Jane: All clustered together. It makes no sense whatsoever in the environment, but it’s just so beautiful.
IA: That is beautiful. Is that a watercolor?
IA: It looks like acrylic to me, but I don’t know. You said the painting, as a practical matter, doesn’t make sense because you’d never have plants bunched together like this?
Jane: Right, but in this particular case . . .
IA: What is it? “Art is bigger than life.”
Jane: As a painter she can do whatever she wants.
IA: This touches on another question. What would be your ideal garden?
Jane: I don’t know if there is such a thing. An ideal garden, there’s too much involved in gardening, too many elements and how it’s laid out, the plants involved. You might find one little area of a garden that you like.
IA: So, your garden plot here, is that primarily vegetables or do you have flowers, too?
Jane: I wrote down flowers that I like. Are you familiar with Gentian which has a blue, trumpet-like bloom?
Jane: I have it in my garden. I try to get things that I like.
Jane: Also, I’m a fern fancier. I love different ferns. My favorite one is polystichum . . . which is a very ferny-like leaf, evergreen.
IA: Does it grow naturally here on the island?
Jane: No, it doesn’t grow naturally. The parent of it is polystichum.
IA: Speaking of native plants, we were walking through Jane Cammon Park and we saw two men and we’re pretty sure one of them had a big bundle of salal.
Jane: Oh really?
IA: Yeah, they’d been cutting it, we’re pretty sure. Historically, people from the mainland came over here to cut and resell salal to florists. I bet that’s what they were doing. Apparently, the Parks District already knew someone had been doing this. There have been people foraging for mushrooms, too. They talked to someone about it and posted a picture of the person online.
Jane: I walk that park all the time.
IA: We walk our dog there, too. I think that park is used a lot. We can go to other parks and don’t see anybody else. When we go to the Jane Cammon Trail we constantly run into people. It’s really well used.
Jane: My neighbor and I go all the time.
IA: We’ve walking in Andy’s Wildlife Park, too, but in the Winter there are sections that are really wet. They’re doing a good job of putting gravel on the trails and marking the spots that need gravel. We enjoy that trail.
Jane: We’re going to do that one next to see how well they’re doing.
IA: It’s a process. The one section that’s on the NE corner between the off-leash dog park and the parking lot is a wetland to begin with. We’ve walked through there recently when there’s been 2 to 3 inches of water in some spots. Not everywhere but for stretches of 30 to 40 feet. It’s just the natural level of the water. We enjoy it because it’s dog friendly.
Jane: I’m trying to think of the place that’s not dog-friendly.
IA: Jacobs Point is “No Dogs”.
Jane: Why is that?
IA: Dogs are allowed on the Wildlife Trail, the Jane Cammon Trail and Idie Ulsh Park.
Jane: There’s not much to Idie Ulsh.
IA: It’s lovely, it’s nice. It goes by the (Schoolhouse) Creek. The reason I think they don’t allow dogs on Jacobs Point is because it’s so close to Oro Bay and you can end up on the beach. They’re trying to avoid having dogs on the beach. You get people out there and they don’t pick up after their dog and it’s a headache for the Parks.
Jane: Yes, I agree. I go with my neighbor and she has a small dog and she always picks up after it.
IA: One more question. When you start looking at gardening in this country, there’s a movement toward people buying small acreage and growing herbs and gardening. There are also urban gardens showing up on vacant lots in cities. And you see community gardens like the one here at the Johnson Farm. Do you think gardening is becoming more popular?
Jane: I think so. One of the issues we have in our community gardens is some people think they are too hard to maintain, so they’re giving them up. We clean them out; we’re in the midst of cleaning one that Carol Paschal is going to take over.
IA: Are there standards for maintaining the garden plots?
Jane: Yes, there are. All winter we’re responsible for our gardens. Not just in the summer because weeds grow. There’s somebody else who’s leaving because she’s putting in a garden at her house.
IA: Do you know how many plots are here at the Farm?
Jane: Yes, I do. There are a total of 34 plots.
IA: Are they all full?
Jane: Yes. Sue Huseby has the list and she’s the one responsible for assigning them.
IA: Is there anything you’d like to add, Jane.
Jane: My goal in everything I do is in keeping the soil healthy, keeping an eye on the plants and keeping them pruned. We did prune the herberus because it was growing out and, by the way, the Daffodils are coming up so keep an eye out for that. Oh, question #14, “If you were to have the ideal garden, what would be included?” One of the things I forgot to include in my earlier comments is fragrance of plants. I love to include those like the Daphnewhich is a winter blooming one, very unusual. Trying to find one like that is very difficult. And I mentioned the leaves and the form are important. The other thing is, whenever we have potlucks again, we should have speakers about gardens.
IA: That would be great. I sort of have a picture in my mind about speakers on gardens but what do you have in mind?
Jane: It could be about specific gardens. Oh, you know there’s another garden up north in Kingston, Heronswood (https://heronswoodgarden.org/) which was created by Dan Hinkley and that is valuable to go see. Steve Hootman is the Director of the Rhododendron Species Foundation. He would be an excellent speaker.
IA: I think you mentioned it to me in passing a long time ago. You were saying there was something . . . they have shows at different times of the year. What is it specifically about that garden, is it because it’s all natural or something else about it?
Jane: Dan Hinkley created it. He’s a gardener, plant explorer and a writer by the way. He just wrote about his place in Kingston which is in the Indianola area, called Windcliff (https://danieljhinkley.com/plants/). That’s the name of his garden and the name of the book. He gives you a lot of information about his creation of the garden. But, boy, it’s an enormous read.
IA: Is that right? Technical?
Jane: It’s detailed. It gives you more than one wants in one sitting. . . .
END OF INTERVIEW