Island Pastoral

Vegetables, ornamentals, and a farmyard menagerie add up to a labor of love for a Pacific Northwest gardener.

July 15, 2011

Shirley Collins's stylish little farmstead on Whidbey Island is as much about vegetable artistry as it is about cooking and eating from the garden. She considers the shape, texture, and colors of herbs and vegetables every bit as much as their taste and nutritional value. The Collinses eat from their garden most of the year, which is no small feat on Whidbey Island, an hour's drive and short ferry ride north of Seattle. Between greenhouse, raised beds, coldframes, and densely planted borders, Shirley has created a garden that's both beautiful and productive.

As you'd expect from the founder of the chic and successful kitchenware store Sur La Table (since sold and taken national), Shirley is a visual person. She brings her design skills out of the kitchen into the garden. "It's so much fun to plant vegetables in a way that's pleasing to look at," says Shirley. From clematis-draped arbors to a flock of laying hens, the Collins garden is both showplace and working farm.

Five years ago, Shirley and her husband, Alf, a former columnist for The Seattle Times, were living in Seattle and spending weekends in a little Whidbey Island beach cabin. A farm stay in France so enchanted the Collinses that when they returned home, they began looking for property on the island. When they found a stucco house on 5½ sunny acres, they moved up the hill from beach to barnyard.

Much of the property is devoted to pastures and greenbelt; the rest is thoroughly planted in raised beds and long, complex ornamental borders filled with roses, hydrangeas, elderberries, perennials, and edibles, many in Shirley's favorite tones of deep purple and gold.

Down the hill from the house, Shirley created a huge pond to attract birds and planted its margins with dogwood, vine maple, and thousands of heather and Mexican feather grasses (Nasella tenuissima) for a casual meadow look. A gazebo stands above the pond, a comfortable shelter for observing the eagles and herons that sweep down to visit the water. It's an ideal spot to take a little rest, if these hard-working gardeners could ever find a spare moment.

"It is a really big garden," admits Shirley, although she and Alf seem to delight in spending their days caring for 40 chickens, sheep, donkeys, the sweeps of ornamental landscaping, and the raised beds and greenhouse. "It's what I do every day.

Aren't I lucky to have all this work?" says Shirley cheerfully as she pets one of four woolly Corriedale sheep that amble up to the fence for attention. A pair of plush and feisty miniature donkeys, an ancient breed from Sardinia, watch over the sheep, stomping their feet and carrying on noisily if a coyote shows itself along the margins of the greenbelt.


The heart of the ornamental garden is a long, lushly planted double border flanking a wide gravel path. For the first couple of years, Shirley caged favorite plants from deer predation. Last spring, she broke down and encircled the property with a handsome wire and wooden lattice fence to protect all her treasures.

Successfully integrating fruit and vegetables into ornamental beds can be a trick, since they tend to burgeon and fade more quickly than shrubs and even perennials. Since the ornamental borders are impressionistic, rather than fussy and intricately tended, Shirley chooses edibles that hold up well throughout the gardening season. Each type of edible is as carefully vetted for texture, shape, and color as any flower or shrub. The largest plants, like cardoons and rhubarb, are used as accents; Shirley plants dozens of herbs as edging or to run like ribbons through the borders.

Rhubarb, with its huge, crinkly leaves and glowing red stems, emerges from the ground in early spring and lasts late into summer. Shirley grows enough to harvest and to leave plenty behind to contrast with the more finely textured clematis and roses. "The corn is a wonderful element with its height, and the squash and pumpkins are fabulous planted right into the border with their big, dramatic leaves and colorful fruit," says Shirley.

Blueberry and currant shrubs plump up the borders, attracting birds and humans alike when the fruit ripens. Shirley counts on willowy fennel and lovage to add height and texture. She trims out the long borders with herbs --including shiso (Perilla) for its unusually colored leaves, and borage for its deer-repellent properties and starlike blue flowers, which make a lovely garnish on a dinner plate.

The Collinses love to entertain, and last summer their garden was chosen to host the big party after Veggisimo, the annual Whidbey Island vegetable garden tour. More often, they cook for a few close friends, using as much homegrown produce as possible. "I recently hosted a lunch and served salmon wrapped in fig leaves with nasturtium butter," says Shirley, who picked both figs and flowers right outside her own front door.

As at the French farm that inspired their island pastoral, the Collinses plan for a year-round harvest. "My challenge is to plant a wide enough variety of vegetables to give us something from the garden all spring and summer and a little something into the winter months," says Shirley. In autumn, Shirley plants nutty mache (lamb's lettuce), spinach, and dinosaur or Tuscan kale (Cavalo nero) in the raised beds, all of which hold up well through the winter months in the Northwest's relatively mild climate (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 8). She stirs the kale into soups, or stews it with garlic and olive oil to serve on toast.

Any kale leaves with holes go to the chickens, who love kale as much as humans do.

In the coldframe snugged up against the side of the garage, Shirley grows arugula, parsley, thyme, and chervil for winter harvests. Three kinds of beets, celeriac, and potatoes stay in the ground for winter digging. In earliest spring, Shirley plants green shelling peas, which she plants again in July if the weather stays cool enough. This usually isn't a problem on Whidbey Island, where springs are windy, wet, and chilly well into June, and most winters bring hard freezes and sometimes snow. Early spring is also the time to plant lettuces, endive, and radicchio, as well as broccoli rabe, which has proved less susceptible to the cabbage moth that plagues other brassicas in summertime. The Collinses fill several raised beds with fava beans, which they love for their exquisite taste and cunningly checkered blossoms. "They're delicious eaten raw with salty pecorino cheese in early spring; later in the season we cook them in a risotto or to serve with pasta," says Shirley.

As befits a farm with European flair, the Collinses grow fruit as well as vegetables. Deer and birds plunder most of the fruit off the old trees in the little orchard. But inside the fence line, Shirley recently planted columnar apple trees that are already covered in fruit. She's espaliered apple and pear trees against the house, and also grows multigrafted espalier pears inside the fenced vegetable garden. "I just wish we could think of a humane way to beat the birds to the blueberries, but so far we lose," says Shirley. The couple do score a good harvest off their red and black currants, since they prove too sour even for the opportunistic cedar waxwings, which concentrate on eating the sweeter blueberries instead.

Food and flowers harmonize in the ground just as Shirley and Alf have learned to coexist with the wildlife on their little farmstead. Raised beds are accented with sweet peas and nasturtiums while food plants enrich the borders on this property where the line between ornamental and edible is delightfully blurred.

Edible Elegance
Some favorite herbs, fruit, and vegetables Shirley Collins grows for beauty as well as food:

Rhubarb. "First up in the spring and so delicious. I grow lots so I can spare some to poach and still have its presence in the borders."

Corn. Even if corn doesn't always ripen in the Northwest, Shirley grows it in the borders for its height and shape.

Shiso (Perilla), a.k.a. Japanese basil. The olive-and wine-colored leaves of this mint relative earn it a spot at the front of the border. Be warned: It is a rampant self-seeder.

Artichokes and cardoons. "I love the shape of artichokes and cardoons, and since both take a lot of cooking preparation, I plant some to eat and the rest for their wonderful structure."

Borage. "I grow lots of borage in the front of all the borders because the deer seem to stay clear of it, which is so useful." And the flower is a pretty, edible garnish.

Lovage and purple fennel. Shirley grows great stands of these through the borders for drama.

Squashes and pumpkins. She grows these in the raised beds and borders for their late, showy fruit as well as the cascade of huge leaves.

Parsley. "You can never have too much flatleaf Italian parsley, in the garden or in the kitchen."

Pineapple sage. "A wonderful, fragrant plant, with late red flowers that are favorites with birds."