In the Richmond Beach neighborhood of Shoreline north of Seattle sits a quiet, four-acre refuge from the urban scene, one enjoyed by both the birds and humans who know how to find it. The roots of the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden (KBG) can be traced back to 1958 when botany professor Arthur Rice Kruckeberg (1920-2016) and his wife Mareen Schultz Kruckeberg (1925-2003) established a unique garden on their private property. Today this shady glen of conifers, ferns, native wildflowers, and exotic species is a jewel in the Shoreline parks system.
Planting the Garden
The history of the garden is inextricably intertwined with the history of the Kruckeberg family.
Art and Mareen Kruckeberg met in 1952. She was a botany student at the University of Washington; he was a newly minted professor of botany and a recent widower with three small children -- Janet, Patricia, and Caroline. They married in 1953, forming a 50-year-long partnership that embraced raising both children and plants.
After her marriage, Mareen did not continue her formal studies but began implementing her gardening ideas at their home on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Following the birth of their son Arle in 1957, the Kruckebergs planned a move to a larger property that would accommodate both Mareen's passion for garden building and Art's need for experimenting with rare and exotic plants. While Art was away on one of his many botanizing field trips, Mareen went house-hunting:
"I soon found something far better than I had hoped for: an acre of slightly sloping terrain with a house and behind it a 20-foot drop to a three-acre meadow. Most of the large trees were Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), but the one that clinched the sale was a white fir (Abies concolor). It was and is a beautiful tree. Since I had made up my mind and I knew Art would agree, I told the owner we would take it. She looked at me for a second and then asked, "Wouldn't you like to see the house?" (Mareen Kruckeberg).
The Kruckebergs moved to their new home in 1958, bringing many of their plants with them. The original parcel measured a little more than one acre. Shortly thereafter Mareen's father, Bill Schultz, purchased the lower, unimproved meadowland immediately adjacent to the east, bringing the combined properties to a little less than four acres on two levels. He then remodeled the freestanding garage into a cottage for himself and his wife, Enid Schultz.
The property, at 20312 15th Avenue NW, was a forest remnant, the lower part of which had been cleared for strawberry farming in the early part of the twentieth century. Over the next four decades the Kruckebergs restored much of the forest canopy, albeit with a mix of tree species from all over the world, while also creating an understory of both native and exotic perennials.
"And so we began the garden. We removed nearly everything except the mature trees, landscaping with more unusual and interesting plant material. The vegetable garden became Grandpa's domain, while Art claimed for a rock garden the area 30 by 60 feet which borders the driveway. The design was enhanced by some large irregular stones set in place by Henry Yorozu [1921-2002], the artist who selected the material for the Arboretum's Japanese Tea Garden. Art uses this semi-arid, sunny slope for many of the alpine and desert specimens he collects" (Mareen Kruckeberg).
How Does Your Garden Grow?
While Art Kruckeberg earned and continues to enjoy a prominent reputation as a botanist, Mareen Kruckeberg is generally credited as being the architect of the garden. Art Kruckeberg summed up his wife's role in a 2008 interview with the Shoreline Historical Museum:
"She was pretty firm in her views of what to do and what not to do, which in retrospect we all admire. Maybe it was a little hard to take sometimes. I respected her desire to keep things looking elegant rather than just a chock-a-block collection of plants thrown together. It's probably one of the most unusual gardens in the Northwest in terms of diversity and topography and its aesthetic attributes. I would say that [Mareen] was three-fourths of the garden. I was contributing unusual plants and she would place them in the right place, or say 'we don't want that'" (Stiles interview, October 8, 2008).
Son Arle Kruckeberg and others have amplified on what was sometimes a bone of contention between husband and wife -- pruning and thinning.
"She was very aware of the fact that things needed to be pruned, or if there were two plants next to each other, when there was only space for one, one of them would have to go -- that certain plants would just outlive their usefulness in the landscape and nothing is sacred in the garden because it is a dynamic ecosystem, if you will. If there were disagreements between my father and my mother about the garden and decisions in the garden they often came down to whether or not a certain plant or tree should be pruned back or eliminated altogether or left to itself. And she was on the more merciless side of that argument" (Stiles interview, November 14, 2008).
As Mareen's reputation for plant propagation grew in the 1960s, her home nursery became a magnet for neighbors and plant lovers throughout the community. Beginning about 1970 the Kruckebergs held an annual Mother's Day sale of plants, a tradition that continues as of 2016. Ultimately Mareen was obliged to take out a business license in 1971, reportedly for $1.00, that allowed her to sell plants aboveboard in her self-titled MsK Nursery (now the MsK Rare and Native Plant Nursery). In addition to the plants she propagated, Mareen was famous for her miniature gardens planted in hypertufa, wooden, or cement tabletop-sized containers.
A Growing Family
The Kruckebergs' daughter Enid was born in 1963, bringing the number of children to five. A succession of Norwegian Elkhounds joined the family. For many years the Lower Garden remained a meadow fringed with Douglas firs where the younger Kruckeberg children and their friends played and rode horses that were stabled on the property. Everybody was expected to help with the garden chores.
In 1980 university student Rowland Adeniyi was invited to live in the cottage in exchange for working in the garden alongside Mareen. Adeniyi made himself indispensable for both his garden work and his technical expertise with new-fangled computer systems; he became a part of the Kruckeberg family and in 2016 continued to live in the garden as caretaker and Art Kruckeberg's right-hand man.
The Kruckebergs and their garden and nursery were a part of the web of Pacific Northwest horticultural thought and practice that blossomed in the latter part of the twentieth century. This was a time when Northwest gardeners were turning away from showy ornamentals and formal garden beds and exploring native plants and naturalistic contours. The Kruckebergs were very much a part of this movement, with the twist that they did not dismiss exotic species and non-natives. Art Kruckeberg's connections in the academic botanic world, along with Mareen Kruckeberg's friends in the horticultural community, enabled them to grow their plant collection by trading seeds and cuttings with others around the world. The couple counted among their friends famed University of Washington botanist C. Leo Hitchcock; Carl English, the landscape architect of the botanic gardens at the Ballard Locks; Walter Lyon, the head gardener at the Locks; and prominent plantswomen Elisabeth (Betty) Miller, Eulalie Wagner, and Valerie Easton.
Art and Mareen pursued their own interests. Art gained a reputation as an expert on the native flora of the Pacific Northwest and on the flora of serpentine beds -- specialized plants that live on outcroppings of serpentine rock and soil that is unusually high in iron and magnesium as well as nickel and other minerals toxic to most plants, found in scattered areas around the world including a few spots in the Puget lowlands and some in the Cascade Mountains. Over the years Mareen honed her skills in plant propagation, astounding many with her ability to grow difficult and rare species from seeds and cuttings. In addition to her work in the garden and nursery, Mareen was an accomplished botanical illustrator; her drawings appeared in ads for the nursery and accompanied many of her husband's scientific articles. Both husband and wife loved ferns and grew many varieties in their garden.
The couple championed rare and endangered plants. Art was active in the movement to protect species and conserve land via legislation. He had a large role in gaining passage of the Washington Natural Area Preserves Act in 1972 and also served on the state's Endangered Plant Species Task Force.
The Kruckebergs shared their enthusiasm and expertise with a number of like-minded individuals and groups. Art was a co-founder of the Washington Native Plant Society in 1976; Mareen was active in the Northwest Chapter of the Rock Garden Society, which often met at the garden; the Northwest Ornamental Horticultural Society (now the Northwest Horticultural Society); and the Hardy Fern Foundation, which she co-founded in 1989. She also became a regular consultant to Sunset Magazine on horticultural subjects.
Art Kruckeberg brought many of his classes from UW to tour the garden. His reputation grew as he published a number of books, perhaps most notably The Natural History of Puget Sound Country (University of Washington Press, 1991) and the highly influential Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press, 1982, reprinted 1996). He also published numerous articles for both scholarly and popular publications. In 1989 Art retired from the university with the status of professor emeritus.
A Garden of Champions
By the mid-1980s the garden had largely taken on the shape it has today. The Upper Garden contained the principal structures -- house, cottage, greenhouse, and nursery tables. A fairly steep trail led to the Lower Garden, by this time cleared of horses.
Rowland Adeniyi recalled that about 1985 the family acquired a long tractor and began mowing down the tall grasses in the meadow in order to accommodate more trees and garden beds. Over the course of a century what had been forest became farm, then bog, then meadow, and -- coming full circle -- woodland again, as the Kruckebergs transformed the lower three acres into an arboretum of trees and shrubs representing every continent except Antarctica.
Altogether there were more than 2,000 species of plants in the garden, including at least 50 distinct species of oak tree alone. Pines, mountain ash, larches, maples, and native rhododendrons were all well-represented.
As of 2016, the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden boasts four specimens of the tanbark oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), so named for the tannins in the bark once used for tanning leather. Two of the specimens are typical of the species; two are mutants, descendants of a mystery tree found in the western Sierra Nevadas. The mutants, also called cutleaf tanbark (Notholithocarpus densiflorus forma attenuato-dentatus), have long, narrow, sharply toothed leaves, unlike the smooth oval leaves of the typical tanbark. They are extremely rare.
Near the top of the path to the Lower Garden stands a 100-foot tall Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Transplanted here by the Kruckebergs in 1958 as a six-foot sapling, the California native has grown to a 20-foot circumference at its base.
Four of the trees in the garden are designated as state champions, meaning they are the largest in the state in height and girth. The four, listed in the 2003 book Champion Trees of Washington State by Robert Van Pelt, are a tanbark oak, a mutant tanbark, a striped-bark or snake-bark maple (Acer davidii), and a chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).
There are several rock gardens in the meadow. One features the shiny, blue-green serpentine rocks whose flora Art Kruckeberg studied throughout his career. The Serpentine Soil Bed is a special kind of rock garden highlighting plants adapted to the nutrient-deficient serpentine soils.
Building and maintaining the garden was a massive undertaking from the beginning. For years the work fell on the family and a few occasional volunteers. By the end of the century, with children long grown and out of the nest, keeping up the garden became increasingly challenging. On top of this, housing development loomed all around the once semi-rural neighborhood, leaving the Kruckeberg home and garden in the crosshairs.
The year 1998 marked the beginning of a decade of transition for the garden. In that year a group of garden friends and volunteers led by Michael Broili and Karen Russell set up the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden Foundation (KBGF) with the goal of finding a way to sustain the garden in perpetuity.
Broili explained how he came to be involved in setting up the foundation:
"Karen took me to one of the Mother's Day sales and I fell in love with the garden. I thought this was totally cool -- four acres in the middle of Shoreline, not far from where we lived, and the whole thing was just wonderful. About two weeks later I was driving by and I saw Mareen out at the gate getting her mail so I stopped and we talked across the fence for maybe 45 minutes. I was curious as to what the future of the garden was going to be, what they had planned. She said they didn't really have any plans. They were concerned because the five acres immediately to the south of them had suddenly been bought and developed into Maple Knolls [housing development]. They were distressed by that. So I said 'What if I just sort of put something together to protect and preserve it, would you be interested?' She said, 'Oh, yes!'" (Boba interview, December 17, 2015).
The fence-post conversation led to the first meetings of a group of people interested in protecting the garden. An initial meeting took place at the home of former state representative and senator Donn Charnley. A second meeting some weeks later brought a larger group together and an informal board was set up that incorporated in 1998 as the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden Foundation. In the early days the foundation focused on raising funds to pay for garden staff and hosting volunteer events.
Mareen Kruckeberg passed away on New Year's Day 2003, after a period of declining health. Her death spurred family and friends to take action regarding the future of the garden.
In October of that year the Kruckeberg family and the foundation, assisted by attorney (and later King County councilmember and then state Attorney General) Bob Ferguson (b. 1965), granted a deed of conservation easement to the E. B. Dunn Historic Garden Trust, the nonprofit that operates the Dunn Gardens in North Seattle. The conservation easement protected the property from subdivision and private development in perpetuity, but issues of sustainability and care remained. Early in 2004 Arle Kruckeberg and KBGF board member Dr. Bob Hauck approached Shoreline City Manager Steve Burkett with the idea of selling the property to the city. Former Parks Manager Dick Deal described a visit he made to the garden with Burkett at that time:
"We took the tour: Steve and I and his wife. It was a beautiful sunny February day. And we just had a delightful time in the garden and felt that this really was a place that should be preserved for the community to enjoy into the future" (Boba interview, December 12, 2015).
In May 2005 the young city (founded in 1995), eager to create an impact, put its first bond issue before the public. The successful Parks, Open Space, and Trails bond levy generated $18.5 million for parks and open space. In addition to improving existing parks and trails, the levy included acquisition of three new parks properties totaling 25 acres -- the South Woods urban forest, a parcel of land adjacent to Hamlin Park, and the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden. In January 2008 the city purchased the garden property including the house and other structures from Art Kruckeberg for $950,000.
The city deal spelled out a three-way partnership: Shoreline would own the property, undertake major maintenance projects, and make capital improvements to foster accessibility to the public; the KBGF would continue to operate the garden and nursery via a service agreement with the city, raising funds to pay for staffing and other essentials; and Art Kruckeberg and garden caretaker Rowland Adeniyi would continue to live on the property in exchange for their expertise and labor.
The city and foundation held a formal dedication and ribbon cutting for the newly public garden in June 2008. Shoreline Mayor Cindy Ryu, King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson, and Art Kruckeberg spoke to a crowd of enthusiastic guests.
In the same year the Kruckeberg house and garden were awarded a Trillium Heritage Award by the Shoreline Historical Museum as an outstanding example of historic architecture. The museum, in collaboration with the KBGF, also mounted an exhibit titled "Mareen Schultz Kruckeberg: A Horticulture Legacy for the Washington Community," funded in part by the Washington State Women's History Consortium.
Ink was scarcely dry on the property transfer, however, when the issue of financial sustainability came to the fore again. Dick Deal explained the situation:
"Art had managed the garden just out of his pocket. He didn't have any real detailed records as to what things costs, so we really didn't know what it was going to cost. So at that time Art put up $100,000 and the city put up $100,000 and for three years that money was going to be used to manage the operation of the garden and we were going to keep explicit details of the budget to see just what it would take to manage it. The City Council at that time was interested in the garden supporting itself. We told them, well, that's a nice goal, but most properties like this aren't self-supporting" (Boba interview, December 12, 2015).
Garden management was also an issue. The KBGF struggled to find the right staffing configuration to meet the expectations of both the city and the Kruckeberg family. After the initial three-year period ended in 2011 it became clear even to a reluctant City Council that some annual support from the city would be necessary. Going forward the city provided a significant funding allocation each year, with the balance of funds coming from individual contributions, nursery sales, grants, and program fees. The foundation employed an executive director and three garden/nursery staff persons.
The Once and Future Garden
Following purchase of the garden, the city invested in a master-planning process resulting in a master site plan (MSP) prepared by John Swanson Design Studio and approved by the Shoreline City Council in September 2010.
The MSP laid out a comprehensive and ambitious plan for the design, maintenance, interpretation, and curation of the garden, its structures, and plants. Structural enhancements proposed included a semi-circular parking lot, a gatehouse office, improvements to the house, a roofed gathering area to be called The Commons, and, perhaps most drastically, replacement of Grandpa Schultz's cottage with a two-story multi-use Environmental Learning Center. The plan called for main pathways to be widened, lined with permeable materials, and made ADA accessible, including seating areas.
In acquiring the KBG, the City of Shoreline hoped to advance its overarching message of environmental sustainability, formally adopted as the City of Shoreline's Environmental Sustainability Program Strategy in 2008.
This message jibed very well with the practices and philosophy of the Kruckeberg family, which had long been in the forefront of sustainable household and gardening practices. Mareen, a bird lover, eschewed inorganic pesticides and herbicides in the garden and sanctioned tree snags and brush piles before such wildlife-friendly gardening practices were widely known.
Enid Kruckeberg recalled that the family utilized many different garbage cans: "We had the tin, aluminum, the green glass, the clear glass, brown glass, paper, burned garbage, we had garbage-man garbage. And we had compost. It was just crazy" (Stiles interview, October 30, 2008).
The MSP incorporated plans for practicing, demonstrating, and teaching sustainability to the public. The intention of the planners was for the garden to "lead by example." To this end, the MSP called for managing stormwater runoff, "green" sod roofs on new structures, and waste-management practices that included recycling of all nursery materials and repurposing of salvaged wood and plant material.
By early 2016, five years after the master site plan was approved, much had been done and much remained to be done. As with most things, financial realities put the brakes on full implementation of the plan. A visitor returning to the garden after a five-year absence would notice significant changes and improvements including a small (although non-circular) parking lot on the grounds of the Upper Garden, a boardwalk leading to an ornamental gateway and information kiosk (although no gatehouse), and a great deal more interpretive signage. In the Lower Garden, new areas had been opened up allowing for additional planting beds, as well as temporary modern-art installations. Informal gathering areas were carved out of the brush, including one specifically designed for creative exploration by children.
A cell-phone tour, called "Talking Trees," now allows visitors to dial in or use QR codes to hear experts, including Professor Kruckeberg, describe a number of trees. Educational activities include docent-led tours, workshops and classes on gardening topics, and summer programs for children. Most plants are labeled and a database of garden plants can be accessed via the foundation's website. Events and tours, such as a winter "Solstice Stroll" and a "Moss Meander," as well as special nursery sales, coax visitors to the garden. A native-plant demonstration garden is in the works.
Mike Broili and Karen Russell, the couple who initiated preservation planning for the garden, share the city's vision of the garden as a model for low-impact sustainable development. Mike adds that he would like to see dinner theater at the garden.
Former KBGF Executive Director Brianne Zorn, who oversaw the redesign of the Upper Garden, was pleased that longtime garden staff members were able to preserve Mareen Kruckeberg's vision while replanting to accommodate the new parking lot and entryway. She noted that the clearing necessary for the construction project in fact opened up new vistas at the point where visitors first encounter the garden, and looked forward to the day when the newer plantings would reach full size and grow right up to the edges of the parking lot.
Art Kruckeberg remained very involved in planning the direction of the garden until his death in May 2016 at the age of 96. In a late-2015 interview he discussed a list of species he had recently compiled that he hoped to see added to the inventory:
"A garden is never a static function. It should be changing, adding new plants, creating new areas. What is most needful now is filling up gaps in the diversity of the garden. There are a number of important species that are missing yet" (Boba interview, December 12, 2015).
In fact, the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden has never been static; it is a fine example of a vernacular landscape that has changed over time to meet the needs of the Kruckeberg family and, now, the public. It was not designed by professional landscape architects; it does not adhere to a formal design or refined plant palette; it does not boast an endowment; it has no grand views or stately home. It does reflect the unique personalities and interests of its creators.