Seattle Post-Intelligencer August 4, 2006
By George Ball, Chairman & President W. Atlee Burpee & Co. and former President of The American Horticultural Society.
As the president of Burpee and owner of Heronswood Nursery, I wish both to clarify some points that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board raised in its Opinion piece of July 24, 2006, and to illuminate for your readers the potential of the Heronswood Gardens in Kingston. With help from area resources, I propose to save Heronswood Gardens as the botanical treasure that it is, as well as an antidote to the commonplace ‘McMansions’ that symbolize our current misbegotten notions of wealth.To begin, some clarification.
Contrary to your July 21st article, not a single plant from the world-renowned Heronswood display gardens has been disturbed, much less removed to Pennsylvania. Far from plundering the gardens, we’ve been carefully restoring parts damaged by storms.
This misunderstanding results from our decision last May, after nearly six years of operating Heronswood Nursery at a loss, to move the operations to larger space in Pennsylvania and Delaware, where we could better serve a national constituency, and increase the value of our plants by screening them for wider climatic adaptation.
Kingston is a mild and wet zone 8; our three mid-Atlantic nurseries are zones 5, 6 and 7. Our 60-acre research facility and display gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania will feature new varieties for both the Pacific Northwest and the remainder of the United States. We moved potted production stock and saleable nursery plants to Pennsylvania to fulfill future mail and internet orders and to sell at the July 14-15 Heronswood Open at Fordhook Farm, a hydrangea festival that benefited The Garden Conservancy—the first of many—that was planned long before the decision was made to relocate our research, production and customer fulfillment operations.
There is understandable concern around Seattle about the fate of this extraordinary botanical treasure. I could have sold the remaining property and botanical gardens piecemeal, but did not. Rather, I am trying to find a way to maintain both the gardens’ integrity and their accessibility to the public.
Some in the community have decried the price we are asking for the Heronswood property and gardens. To some, it would appear that we are not just tearing down a piece of heaven and putting up a parking lot—but trying to make a killing at the same time. Wrong on all three counts. The actual purchase price was $5 ½ Million for the present garden and residences in 2000 and 2001. In 2003, we offered the property back to the founders at an inexpensive price, as a gesture that the old business model they were insisting on was not working and they could have the nursery and gardens back, in addition to our improvements to them, for a bargain.
However, they were not interested, so the exclusive $2 ½ Million offer was withdrawn. At normal real estate appreciation rates for these sorts of properties from 2000 to 2006, the Seattle market has nearly doubled. With 14,000 rare plants, shrubs and trees representing 8,000 varieties from over 100 remote regions such as the Himalayas, the Andes, Western China, the cloud forests of Korea, Taiwan, Viet Nam and Costa Rica, as well as all the rare plant markets throughout the world, we’re offering one of the crown jewels of botanical gardens, public or private, for $11 Million
That’s a fair price for a 15 acre living museum that the New York Times called “Shangri La” and you called “Paradise”. Indeed, monarchs used to fight wars over such treasures. Consider yet another perspective. Currently on the market are Prince Bandar’s holiday residence in Aspen for $135MM, Donald Trump’s alternate Palm Beach mansion (not Mar-A-Lago) for $125MM, and 80 South Street, an apartment building in New York’s South Street Seaport section offering condos starting at $29MM.
Oversized ski lodges, gaudy beach houses and luxury apartments may be fine things, but there are thousands of them wherever there are snowy mountains, warm sand and ritzy neighborhoods, and none can be considered a cultural treasure. Furthermore, neither sellers nor buyers are questioned, much less criticized, for the risible valuations. I suggest that horticultural Edens possess more value than your editors believe they deserve.
With the proper leadership, Heronswood Gardens could be turned into a landmark of the public garden education movement sweeping the nation, combining the arts, history, geography and science in a wonderful setting. Especially for children, the lessons of an intricate, fairyland garden will be salient forever.
On the other hand, as a private residence, Heronswood could be on view several times a year to garden tours and the public. Like the Bible’s lilies of the field, its world famous plants require little effort, yet yield stunning results.
Moreover, as a paradigm for a new re-thinking of wealth, where the size and breadth of a garden would define the magnificence of a property, rather than the environmentally wasteful, aesthetically grating and garden-less ‘McMansions’ that seduce our nation’s wealthy, Heronswood Gardens could become a watershed in the philosophy of residential planning.
I assure Seattle gardeners and garden lovers I am doing all possible to maintain the Heronswood property so that it remains, whether public or private, a wonder of world horticulture and a source of pleasure to the community for years, centuries, to come.
$11 million is fair price for Heronswood botanical garden Seattle Post-Intelligencer August 4, 2006