Island Pastoral

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

By Valerie Easton

Photography by John Granen


A tall fence is a necessary evil due to Whidbey Island's hungry deer, but Shirley made the best of it by choosing an attractive design that doubles as trellising for ornamentals. Inside, vegetables, fruits, and flowers keep her days full of activity, but the gazebo that overlooks the pond offers relaxation that is only a few steps away.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.