Garden tour adds Oak Harbor history

Examining a Weigala florida ‘variegata’ plant in the Noorlag garden are Judy Biddle, Oak Harbor Garden Club Garden Tour & Tea chairwoman, and Gail Jaeger, publicity chairwoman, at right. - Jim Larsen/Whidbey News-Times
Examining a Weigala florida ‘variegata’ plant in the Noorlag garden are Judy Biddle, Oak Harbor Garden Club Garden Tour & Tea chairwoman, and Gail Jaeger, publicity chairwoman, at right.
— image credit: Jim Larsen/Whidbey News-Times

Garden lovers can combine their hobby with a hearty dose of Oak Harbor history during this year’s Garden Tour & Tea sponsored by the Oak Harbor Garden Club.

One of the six stops on the June 20 tour is the home on Neal Noorlag in the heart of modern Oak Harbor, on Ely Street. The old Noorlag farm was a mainstay in town for decades, and this is the public’s first chance in years to get a close-up look at its fascinating foliage while reveling in its history.

Neal Noorlag the younger recently returned to Oak Harbor full-time after an adventurous life of working in the cinema in France for several years before settling in as a TV news and documentary film editor in Southern California.

Both of his parents, Neal senior and Elsie, have passed on, but through the years Noorlag saw that the gardens, greenhouse, grounds and buildings were maintained. Kathy Chalfant, local gardener, has worked with Neal on various projects for more than 20 years.

“On vacations I was always here,” said Noorlag, who returned to Oak Harbor fulltime last August. “I began all this gardening years ago.”

The Noorlag farm once spanned 15-acres all the way to what is now Highway 20, but most was sold off for the Home Depot development. However, the remaining two acres are the heart of the old farm, with the classic house patterned after the model home of the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, a greenhouse, barn, orchard and gardens.

The Noorlags were mainstays of the Dutch community in Oak Harbor, leaders in the church and successful farmers. The elder Neal tried his hand at various vegetables, fruits and flowers, forcing blooms early in his greenhouse so Elsie could decorate the church with her imaginative arrangements in the winter. The Noorlags raised prize Hackney show horses and at one time had 30 Shetland ponies roaming the farm.

“This is a historic site for Oak Harbor,” said Judy Biddle, garden tour chairwoman. “This site is very much a bonus, it’s a little gem sitting right here with features that remind us of the past.”

Like all local gardeners, Neal Noorlag suffered through a miserable winter. “The winter was brutal for everyone,” he said. Several of the plants he brought with him from Southern California didn’t survive and some of his perennials didn’t make it. But there was no sign of that on a sunny day in late May. The garden behind the house was alive with plants of all sizes, shapes and colors.

“I like different textures and colors,” Noorlag said. Light green hops were hanging high from a trellis, Asiatic poppies were in bloom and a myriad of subtle colors and shapes dotted the landscape.

“I don’t want one of this and one of that,” Noorlag said of his gardening philosophy. “I want a scheme -- drifts of colors.”

Hops may be thought of as a farm crop and beer ingredient, but to Noorlag it’s a perfect addition to his garden. “It makes a statement, how the green and yellow works with the other colors,” he said.

People taking the garden tour will likely see plants they’ve never seen before in Noorlag’s garden. Just a few are an artichoke-looking plant called cynara cardunculus, or Cardoon; the dark-colored mounting plant called ligularia, known for its big leaves in the tropics; a native of China called Rodgersia pinnata ‘Rosa;’ and Weigela florida ‘variegata,’ which provides an explosion of pink flowers.

Opening his gardens to the public wasn’t a decision made lightly, Noorlag said, but he now relishes the thought of so many visitors to see the fruits of his labor over the years.

“I made the right decision,” he said. “I want to share this with the people.”

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