Volunteer Cheri Anderson admires a rhododendron impeditum. (Photos by Laura Guido/Whidbey News Group)

Volunteer Cheri Anderson admires a rhododendron impeditum. (Photos by Laura Guido/Whidbey News Group)

Meerkerk in bloom

Garden celebrates 40 years of rhodies, providing beauty to Whidbey

When Frank Simpson became executive director at Meerkerk Gardens two years ago, he had a vision.

Progress has been made each year, and this spring— just in time for the 40th anniversary of being a public garden — that vision is bursting to life.

“It looks amazing,” said volunteer Kathy Rogers.

“The good looks are due to (Frank),” added volunteer Ellen Alexander.

Volunteers aren’t the only ones who have noticed the transformation. More visitors are coming and a greater variety of people are coming, Simpson said. The trails are wider, smoother and more accessible. He aimed to create an aesthetically pleasing layout that’s also easier to navigate, and he said the feedback he’s receiving is congruent with that goal.

Not that he takes all the credit.

“It’s the product of a lot of work by a lot of people,” Simpson said. “A lot of people in the community have been involved.”

A crew of cheerful volunteers, who call themselves “Grateful Deadheaders,” pulled weeds and cleared debris among the massive rhododendron bushes, trees and other colorful flowers in full bloom recently. The gardens span more than 50 acres and include accessible trails through flowers, woodland paths, water views, a gazebo and nursery that’s open on the weekends.

Whidbey Island’s own somewhat-secret garden began with Ann and Max Meerkerk’s vision in the early 1960s. The couple took 13 acres and shaped an outdoor work of art inspired by Rothschild’s Exbury Gardens in England, Asian design and the native rhododendrons.

The Meerkerks eventually purchased an additional 40 acres of woodland garden. In 1979, Ann Meerkerk bequeathed the property to the Seattle Rhododendron Society. Today, the gardens are managed by the Meerkerk Rhododendron Garden nonprofit, established in 2002.

Simpson entered the scene as a volunteer in 2013. He was already well-versed in the ways of garden care and management. He trained in Dublin at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland and later worked for years in California as a landscape architect.

He had read about Whidbey and decided to venture across the water. He liked it, especially the climate, which reminded him of where he grew up in Ireland, he said.

“It felt familiar and welcoming,” he said.

He eventually became a part-time garden manager until being hired as executive director. He’s been busy ever since re-envisioning the space to make it easier to navigate and more user-friendly, and he isn’t finished.

He has more plans to extend walkways again in the summer and re-do the signage through the whole garden.

“We’re kind of slowly ramping up,” he said.

There won’t be a special celebration for the 40th anniversary, although he said he recognizes its significance. The nonprofit has the resources to do its three major events a year — the mother’s day concert, its Wine and Rhodes Benefit Gala and Bluegrass in the Gardens — and to fund needed improvements.

“Whatever we do, we want to do it really well,” he said.

The nonprofit organization is funded through sales of Washington state rhody license plates, visitor fees, the three fundraising events and memberships.

Meerkerk is open year-round, but it’s just hitting its peak season, which can last into July, Simpson said. He’d also like to continue diversifying the plants, but the massive and sometimes rare hybrid rhododendrons still take center stage.

It’s not hard to see why visitors flock there this time of year as one enters and is immediately greeted by hot pinks, lush greens, deep purples and bright oranges.

“It’s just gorgeous,” said Joyce O’Brien, a visitor from Seattle.

“It’s so refreshing after a long winter.”

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