Visiting the Bloedel Reserve in Bainbridge Island, Washington was a wonderful experience to see the amazing plant life of the Pacific Northwestern United States. Its name is derived from the Bloedel family, which was central to the history of the garden and its mission. The Bloedel Reserve has a mission that is unlike many public gardens, which focuses on being a natural landscape; the master plan fully complements this mission. Additionally, the visitor experience is centered on creating an environment that allows the visitor to have a personally unique experience. Overall, these components come together to make the Bloedel Reserve a unique, green, and peaceful.
Located at the northern edge of Bainbridge Island, the Bloedel Reserve is a half-hour ferry ride and a short 15 minute drive from Seattle, Washington. The 150 acre reserve has both natural and altered landscapes. The temperate climate boasts cool summers and warm winters with an average rainfall of over 40 inches a year. There are over 84 acres of second growth forest, which includes a bird refuge where trumpeter swans are raised. The landscaped areas include a moss garden, a large reflection pool, and a Japanese garden with a traditional Japanese tea house. The Reserve is managed and maintained by 15 full time employees with the help of about 55 volunteers.
The Reserve was the home of the Bloedel family which acquired the property in the 1950’s. The property was developed and managed by the Bloedels until around 1970 when the management was turned over to a foundation governed by a board with members from the family, the University of Washington, and the community. Many of the formal landscaped areas, such as the Japanese garden, were created at this time.
The mission of the Bloedel Reserve is to serve as a place of refreshment and tranquility in the presence of natural beauty, and its primary interest is in the relationship between plants and people. This mission differs in several areas from that of most public gardens. Specifically, the Reserve does not attempt to alter the visitor. Instead, it provides a special environment to which people may respond. Because of this, the Bloedel Reserve has no plant labels, no directional signage, and very few educational materials. Rather than trying to alter the visitors’ state of mind through interpretive materials, this emphasis on allowing them to enjoy the Reserve in any way they choose sets it apart from many other gardens nation wide.
Master planning started for the Reserve around 1985. Conducted by Jeff Rousch, the plan conveyed how Bloedel is different from other, similar institutions. Before opening to the public in 1988, there was a need to focus on how to achieve and portray this unique mission to their audience. Landscape architects spent two years surveying all areas of the property to fully understand the Reserve and seamlessly integrate needed elements, such as walking trails, parking, and other necessary public amenities such as restrooms, into the master plan. The master plan addressed only these physical elements and did not include much information about new garden spaces or interpretation of the garden that currently exist. This master plan is still used today to make decisions because it has captured the essence of the Bloedel Reserve so well.
The Bloedel Reserve is dedicated to giving the visitor a one-of-a-kind experience. The visitor experience while at the Reserve is essential to allowing all who enter to connect with the plants on a psychological, spiritual, and emotional level. The Reserve receives about 24,000 visitors per year. Visitors can purchase annual passes and attend frequently at minimal cost. All visitors must schedule a time to come to the Reserve, and only about 20 people are admitted every half hour. This is done to maintain and enhance the peaceful visitor experience. While the Reserve may benefit financially from added attendance, the experience of the visitor is considered more important.
This garden was an irreplaceable experience. As a visitor, one is met by lush, green western red cedar, big leaf maple, and Alnus rubra sheltering abundant carpets of Epimedium, Oxalis, and moss punctuated by small colonies of sword fern, skunk cabbage, Rhododendron, and Mahonia. While walking the trails, one may find it easy to get lost in the greenness and serenity. With no signs telling the visitors where to go and no labels telling them what they are viewing, the garden is experienced at a level unlike that which is found at any other public garden. This environment made it easy to connect with the plants even if their scientific names are unknown. This peaceful garden is truly one not to be overlooked. It is not a collection of plants, it is not a canvas of rare flowers, it is simply a place to connect to plants.