Bed, Breakfast, and Beautiful Gardens
A visit to Sea Cliff Gardens B&B in Port Angeles, Wash., is literally like stepping into a painting. Strolling through the grounds among lush evergreens and rolling lawns, you’ll follow a flagstone walkway through a shaded woodland garden carpeted with primrose, hostas, hellebores, wood poppies and sweet alyssum. A waterfront rose garden with pink Adirondack benches overlooks the Strait of Juan de Fuca, toward the shores of Victoria, British Columbia. Over 100 blooming rhododendrons dazzle between March and June. Take a stroll and hear about owner Bonnie Kuchler’s labor of love and how she tamed an English garden gone wild. See more Pacific Northwest gardens.
Owner Bonnie Kuchler had dreamed for a decade of owning a bed and breakfast before she and her husband bought this two-acre waterfront property, perched on a cliff near Olympic National Park, five years ago. With a vision in mind of Thomas Kinkade’s painting, Home is Where the Heart Is, she has worked painstakingly to recreate an English garden similar to his, one bursting with color and texture and filled with delightful surprises.
“Now we share our gardens with about 2,000 guests a year, which is what finances my gardening obsession,” says Kuchler. “I tried to inventory the plants, so I’d have a tally to pass on to guests. Between perennials and bulbs, trees and grasses, self-seeding annuals, and a fairy garden, my best estimate is 10,221 plants of about 170 different species, plus a few volunteers.”
In addition to her passion for gardening, Kuchler loves to write and is the author of 20 gift books. Her dream is to hold writer retreats at her B&B, where writers can be inspired by her gardens, the beauty of the sea, the towering evergreens and the mountain vistas.
Take this photo tour to learn more about the story behind Seacliff Gardens and explore their picture-perfect beauty.
GD: What inspired you to do this, and why do you favor this garden style?
Kuchler: My inspiration dates back to the 1990s when I bought a garden print by Thomas Kinkade. I had never seen a garden so captivating. We lived in Hawaii, where I was born, lived for 40 years, and thought daffodils were something you bought in a refrigerated case. I had never seen an English garden in person. I remember thinking, that’s my B&B. It would be many years of gazing before I found this special place.
My English garden was originally the vision of the prior owner of Seacliff Gardens. Raised in London, she was recreating the long, mixed borders she loved as a child. I’ve made lots of changes, guiding the garden with more structure. But the romantic, spill-over-the-borders style remains.
GD: What gardening experience did you have before embarking on this project?
Kuchler: Oh, was I supposed to have experience? I didn’t know the difference between an annual and a perennial, because tropical plants grow every day of the year in Hawaii. I had no idea I shouldn’t prune a plant whenever I wanted to; in Hawaii it didn’t matter whether I cut back my roses in January or July. So I had a lot to learn, and quickly. I hired a fabulously patient master gardener to train me those first couple of years. She still comes around to visit. We stroll through the garden and she stops and points, “Bonnie, that’s a weed.” Of course she’s talking about the plant I’ve carefully nurtured and mulched.
GD: Explain the main factors influencing your selection of plants.
Kuchler: Color is my highest priority. I would live in a color-coordinated world if I could. I am naturally drawn to blues, purples and pinks—and toss in the occasional pop of peach or yellow or red. I work to create vignettes throughout the garden that can be captured by the camera. Each frame plays with flower and foliage hues and mixes up textures and heights.
Equally important to me is bloom time. I want our October guests to be as delighted by my garden as our April and July guests. Even January holds interest, with magenta heath, silver-mound artemisia, red-twig dogwood, dozens of pink and chartreuse hellebores, pansies, snow drops, bald eagles, and Anna’s hummingbirds.
GD: List a few of your favorite plants, those you've had the most success with and find the most visually appealing.
Kuchler: My favorite plants are well-behaved and play beautifully with others. They are not bullies.
Double peonies, the color of raspberry-wine, mingle at the white picket fence with elegant spires of pink foxglove. Purple drumstick primrose cheer up the early-spring shade garden of hosta, ferns and not-yet-popping wood poppies. Sapphire delphiniums are lollipops for the eyes, rising out of chartreuse mounds of Lady’s Mantle (which are not-so-well-behaved.)
Barbie-pink gladiolas, bounded by Jacob’s ladder, catch the sunrise against a backdrop of hydrangea. Sea holly’s spiky blooms look like silver-blue fireworks. Surrounding sea holly with tiger lilies, shasta daisies, and campanula (bellflower) completed the fireworks show. Lavender—very common here—drew me to the area. What could be better than a purple town? Lavender plants like dry feet and lots of space, so they do well in my rock garden.
Mrs. Popple Fuchsia reminds me of the Purple Hat Society. Just one plant is a party all by itself. In our temperate climate, fuchsia needs no overwintering and blooms well into November—so its many flamboyant cultivars are easy favorites. Vibrant-purple asters and dahlias, set-off by sunny yellow mums, perk up the garden when summer perennials nod off.
Two darlings that grow fabulously here I would have to class as bullies--Japanese anemone and crocosmia. Their sneaky underground runners make them high maintenance, but high beauty as well. I have pet tulips, roses, heath, poppies, columbine, snow drops, sweet peas, and lupines too.
GD: Tell us about some of the “surprises” in your garden, especially your delightful fairy garden.
Kuchler: I spotted a fairy garden on Pinterest, and it was envy at first sight. What fun I had hunting for miniature treasures and dwarf conifers, and making my husband haul stones and soil. Loosely recreating Sea Cliff Gardens in miniature, I painted tiny Adirondack benches the same pink as the benches on our cliff; I found a miniature “concrete” bench and birdbath that mimicked our own. I fashioned a flagstone walkway, and of course put in white picket fences and a white arbor. The fairy house was created by an artist who liked pink, so it seemed a perfect fit.
GD: What's involved in tending and maintaining a garden of this size? Do you do all the work yourself?
Kuchler: Ease of maintenance is low on my list of concerns. I want our guests to enjoy a garden that they, honestly, would not have the time to maintain themselves. When we bought the B&B, I was buying my dream job. Maintaining the garden, which takes at least 20 hours a week (11 months a year) is my job and my bliss. The garden would be highly impractical for most people to recreate at home, which makes this a special place to visit.
Each year I hire people to wheelbarrow in 20 yards of compost. I also hire an expert to prune the larger trees, and occasionally I hire a pro to spray fungicide because the full sprayer is heavy to lug around. The rest is up to me.
In the spring, when the rosebushes pop out their first infant leaves, I start spraying with a fungicide to ward off black spot. After one particularly wet and warm spring, I had to fight black spot on all 50 rosebushes, removing every single leaf. I also spend a lot of time pulling tiny weeds from the soil. With so many self-seeding annuals whose seeds I don’t want to disturb, I opt for surgical weed strikes in many areas, instead of hoeing or spraying. Spring is also when I do a lot of shaping and removing dead branches. And it’s when I strategically place cages and fences where peonies, sedum, lupine, and other lanky perennials will soon need something to lean against.
Summer is all about maintenance for me: deadheading a couple of hours each day, cleaning out buried slug traps and refilling them with beer, spraying weekly fungicide, keeping a sharp eye out for weeds that camouflage themselves in the perennials, staking flowers that want to flop, and taking lots of photos.
Fall is when I get most creative, redesigning problem areas, moving plants around, adding more bulbs. It’s also when I put the garden to bed, tucking in one section at a time, and then adding a blanket of organic compost.
GD: Describe some of the challenges you’ve faced tackling such an ambitious project.
Kuchler: Taking on an already-established garden presented its own challenges. I needed to tame an English Garden gone wild. When we first arrived, a group of master gardeners dropped by to preview the garden as a prospect for their annual garden tour. I remember heads wagging and whispers exchanged. Later I heard from my mentor that the ladies had felt sorry for me because the task ahead was so daunting.
It took me a few years to figure out the name of the plants and where they were going to emerge come spring. Then it took me years to understand the needs of each plant, to envision their full-grown size, and create the spacing each needed to thrive.
The first two years I concentrated on getting rid of the weeds. I made it my goal to remove every weed before it went to seed. I remember the first year, when the poppy seeds sprang to life, I meticulously pulled them out, one by one, thinking they were weeds. The job got much easier by the third year.
Then I embarked on a mission to remove or contain the bullies of the garden. That first year I remember crying over the horsetail. I was yanking out—literally a thousand of them every day. They are the cockroaches of the garden. In their places I planted a couple thousand carefully chosen bulbs, perennials, shrubs and grasses. And I transplanted dozens of plants that had outgrown their digs, or were hiding in the shade of now-mature trees.
I am constantly working on color. Every season I examine each bed of the garden for ways to add color and artistic appeal. I do a happy dance when I see guests pointing their camera lenses at the garden beds I’ve toiled over.
GD: What are the most important lessons you've learned through this experience?
Kuchler: Every day the gardens teach me something, and often the lesson has nothing to do with plants.
I’ve learned that roses need room to breathe, just like I do.
I’ve learned to plant my globemaster allium bulbs amongst Japanese anemone, because the height of the anemone’s verdant foliage perfectly covers the withered allium leaves.
I’ve learned that plants have a goal, and it’s not to make flowers. Plants want to take over the world. They want to grow and reproduce. Blossoms and fruit are just a vehicle to reach their end game of producing seeds. So I’ve learned to channel that drive into root growth, and often coax a second blush of blooms.
I’ve learned that deadheading over 100 full-size rhododendrons is a heck of a lot of work.
I’ve learned that in our mild ocean-tempered climate, plants do not read the tags that come in their pots at the nursery, the ones that tell them the height they are supposed to reach. They often double their projected size.
I’ve learned to place the hummingbird feeders in the middle of the brightest fuchsias, because the hummers imprint on their food sources and will return every day to that spot after the fuchsia goes dormant.
I’ve learned to pace myself, because eight straight hours in the garden equals at least a full day of backache recovery.
I’ve learned that weeds grow in the rain, even if I don’t feel like getting wet.
I’ve learned that knowing when to let go of your tattered flowers and fading leaves is essential in a world made up of seasons and storms.