Bed, Breakfast, and Beautiful GardensVisiting Sea Cliff Bed & Breakfast in Port Angeles, WA, feels like stepping into a painting.
Before she and her husband bought this two-acre waterfront property perched on a cliff near Olympic National Park, owner Bonnie Kuchler had dreamed of owning a bed and breakfast for a decade. 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.
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English-style gardening was unfamiliar territory for Kuchler when she first took over the gardens, but it’s second nature to her now, as evidenced in vignettes such as this one. Here, pink roses flank either side of the opening in a white picket fence, and vivid blooms in purples, reds, and pinks greet visitors as they walk through to the other side.
“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, Kuchler’s best estimate is that there are around 10,220 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 writing 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.
Boldly colored blooms serve as a gorgeous foreground to the picturesque view: the Strait of Juan de Fuca, toward the shores of Victoria, British Columbia.
Kuchler was born in Hawaii and lived there for 40 years, so she had never seen an English garden in person. As she puts it, she thought of daffodils as “something you bought in a refrigerated case.” In the 90s, though, she bought a garden print by Thomas Kinkade. Captivated, she recalls thinking that—the garden in the print—was her Bed and Breakfast. It would be many years of searching before she found Sea Cliff Gardens Bed & Breakfast.
The garden was originally the vision of the prior owner of Sea Cliff 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,” Kuchler says. “But the romantic, spill-over-the-borders style remains.”
At Sea Cliff, more than 100 blooming rhododendrons dazzle between March and June.
When asked about her gardening experience, Kuchler jokes, “Oh, was I supposed to have experience?” She describes not really knowing the difference between an annual and a perennial because tropical plants grow every day of the year in Hawaii.
She hired a “fabulously patient” master gardener to help and guide her those first couple of years. That gardener still comes around to visit. “We stroll through the garden, and she stops and points—‘Bonnie, that’s a weed,’ she tells me. Of course, she’s talking about a plant I’ve carefully nurtured and mulched.”
The theme of taming an English garden gone wild is continued in this area of the garden where tall purple foxgloves intermingle with maroon poppies and other vibrant blooms. All throughout the garden, guests can spot little surprises such as this sundial that appears dwarfed among all the tall plants.
Kuchler’s top priority? Color. “I would live in a color-coordinated world if I could,” she says. Though she’s naturally drawn to blues, purples, and pinks, she does include the occasional pop of peach, yellow, or red. “I work to create vignettes that can be captured by the camera,” Kuchler says.
Bloom time is also important. “I want our October guests to be as delighted by my garden as our April and July guests,” Kuchler says. There’s even interest in January with magenta heath, silver-mound artemisia, red-twig dogwood, dozens of pink and chartreuse hellebores, pansies, snowdrops, bald eagles, and Anna’s hummingbirds.
Late-summer fuchsia and ‘Emily Mckenzie’ crocosmia adorn garden beds along the rolling lawn.
“My favorite plants are well-behaved and play beautifully with others,” Kuchler says. Here are several of her favorites.
- 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 hostas, ferns, and 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) completes the fireworks show,” Kuchler says.
- Lavender—very common here—drew Kuchler to the area. Lavender plants like dry feet and lots of space, so they do well in the rock garden.
- Fuchsia does need to be overwintered and blooms well into November in this temperate climate. “Its many flamboyant cultivars are favorites,” Kuchler says. “Mrs. Popple Fuchsia reminds me of the Purple Hat Society. Just one plant is a party all by itself.”
- Vibrant-purple asters and dahlias set-off by sunny yellow mums perk up the garden when summer perennials nod off.
There are two plants that grow fabulously here, but Kuchler classifies them as “bullies”—Japanese anemone and crocosmia. “Their sneaky underground runners make them high maintenance, but high beauty as well,” she says.
Kuchler created a miniature Sea Cliff Gardens B&B in this fairy garden vignette, providing yet another spot for guests to admire.
SURPRISES IN THE GARDEN
When Kuchler saw a fairy garden on Pinterest, she asked her husband to bring in stones and soil and immediately began hunting for miniature treasures and dwarf conifers.
With the goal of recreating a miniature Sea Cliff Gardens, Kuchler painted tiny Adirondack benches the same pink as the benches on the cliff and even found a miniature “concrete” bench and birdbath that mimicked theirs. She fashioned a flagstone walkway and put in white picket fences and a white arbor. Kuchler commissioned an artist who liked pink to create the fairy house.
“In Hawaii, it didn’t matter whether I cut back my roses in January or July,” Kuchler says. “So I had a lot to learn.” Her persistence paid off, and now Sea Cliff is adorned with many thriving roses such as these. Set against a white picket fence and with shasta daisies, bellflower, and other vivid flowers beyond, the roses puts on a delightful show for guests.
“Ease of maintenance is low on my list of concerns,” Kuchler says. “I want our guests to enjoy a garden that they wouldn’t have the time to maintain themselves.” She notes that the garden would be highly impractical for most people to recreate at home, and that’s what makes it a special place to visit. She describes maintaining the garden, which takes at least 20 hours a week for 11 months of the year, as her “bliss.”
Each year, Kuchler hires people to wheelbarrow in 20 yards of compost. She also hires an expert to prune the larger trees, and occasionally she hires a pro to spray fungicide because the full sprayer is heavy to lug around. “The rest is up to me,” she says.
- Roses: When the rosebushes pop out their first infant leaves, Kuchler sprays them with a fungicide to ward off black spot.
- Weeds: With so many self-seeding annuals whose seeds she doesn’t want to disturb, she opts for what she describes as “surgical weed strikes” (pulling tiny weeds from soil by hand), instead of hoeing or spraying.
- Pruning: Trees and shrubs are shaped, and dead branches are removed.
- Support: Cages and fences are placed where peonies, sedum, lupine, and other lanky perennials will need something to lean against.
- Deadheading: Sometimes this takes a couple of hours each day.
- Pest control: Cleans out buried slug traps and refills them with beer.
- Controlling weeds and fungus: Keeps an eye out for weeds that camouflage themselves in the perennials and sprays weekly fungicide.
- Support: Stake flowers that want to flop.
- Reconfiguring: Redesign problem areas, move plants around, add more bulbs.
- Preparing: This is when Kuchler “puts the garden to bed,” tucking in one section at a time, and then adding a blanket of organic compost.
“Each frame plays with flower and foliage hues and mixes up textures and heights,” Kuchler says. That way of thinking leads to stunning vignettes such as this one where plants of varying heights and colors complement one another.
Taking on an already-established garden presented its own challenges. “I needed to tame an English Garden gone wild,” Kuchler says. When she and her husband first arrived at the garden, a group of master gardeners came by to preview the garden as a prospect for their annual garden tour. Later, she heard from her mentor that they had felt sorry for her because the task ahead was so daunting. But Kuchler pressed on.
The first two years, she concentrated on getting rid of the weeds, making it her 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,” she recalls. It took a few years for Kuchler to figure out the name of the plants and where they were going to emerge come spring. Then it took years to understand the needs of each plant, to envision their full-grown size, and create the spacing each needed to thrive. “The job got much easier by the third year,” she recalls.
After concentrating on the weeds, Kuchler embarked on a mission to remove or contain the “bullies” of the garden. She recalls crying over the horsetail, as she remembers yanking out “a thousand” every day. “They are the cockroaches of the garden,” Kuchler says. In their places, she planted a couple thousand carefully chosen bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and grasses. She also transplanted dozens of plants that had outgrown their digs or were hiding in the shade of now-mature trees.
Kuchler continues to work on color, examining each bed of the garden in every season-looking 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,” Kuchler says.
A flagstone walkway meanders through a shaded woodland garden carpeted with primrose, hostas, hellebores. Ferns and conifers add to the woodsy feel.
“Every day, the gardens teach me something, and often the lesson has nothing to do with plants,” Kuchler says. Here are a few of her takeaways.
- Roses need room to breathe, just like people.
- 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. “I’ve learned to channel that drive into root growth, and often coax a second blush of blooms,” Kuchler says.
- Deadheading more than 100 full-size rhododendrons is a heck of a lot of work.
- In this 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.
- 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.
- Pace yourself. Eight straight hours in the garden equals at least a full day of backache recovery.
- Knowing when to let go of your tattered flowers and fading leaves is essential in a world made up of seasons and storms.
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