A secret urban garden

A four-acre sustainable garden offers the opportunity for environmental education.

AP Photo/Kitsap Sun/Deb Smith
John Albers in his four-acre 'Albers Vista Gardens' amid a densely populated neighborhood in East Bremerton, Wash.

Stone paths meander up and down the hillside, connecting more than a dozen diverse botanical collections. Lush ground cover hugs the stones, trailing along from the far reaches of the Madrona Woods, through the Stroll Gallery and the Cutting Garden, all the way down to the John Lentz Garden, a memorial to the late rhododendron enthusiast.Eucalyptus trees stand guard along one section of the path. Heather and lavender spill over another section. Striped-bark maple trees shade yet another.

There are nearly four acres in all, smack dab in the middle of a populated East Bremerton, Wash., hillside overlooking the Port Washington Narrows.

Planting areas in an urban environment are "good because it's going to help decrease the greenhouse gases effect in the urban environment," says property owner John Albers, speaking from his practical side.

He's quick to speak of sustainability and environmental responsibility.

But the first glimpse of "Albers Vista Gardens" reveals that he values a garden's beauty as well. Each section of the garden is an aesthetically pleasing collection of colors and textures, often creatively accented with a bench or whimsical sculpture. Mr. Albers says the landscape art is largely the domain of his wife, Santica.

John and Santica have spent the last 10 years creating an outdoor environmental laboratory that doubles as a peaceful haven. It's not finished, but the project is mature enough that John leads educational tours several times a year. They've established a nonprofit foundation and, long-term, they hope to donate the entire property for ongoing environmental education programs.

John says their motivation stems from a passion for sustainable horticulture. When they bought the property in 1998 they began by clearing blackberries and nonnative invasives, keeping only a few trees. Everything else has been carefully selected, with an eye toward plants that will "take care of themselves" once established, with a minimal need for watering or protection from garden pests.

"Replanting after removal of nonnative invasives takes a tremendous amount of time and work," says John. It also takes a plan, though he says most of the landscape design at Albers Vista has been "seat of the pants."

He calls horticulture a "passion" and says he's taken nearly every horticulture class offered at South Seattle Community College and the University of Washington.

The Alberses incorporate plenty of familiar species into their gardens, but John says the ideal collection of plants for a given Northwest landscape may well include plants that are not native to the area. He devotes a great deal of time to researching plants from around the world and has introduced hundreds of rare and unusual species, carefully monitoring how well they perform.

In spite of the horticultural sophistication he employs, John says he strives to make his tours and lectures helpful to the average gardener. Tours generally focus on a specific topic and he sends his visitors home with handouts and plant lists.

Joan Morris of Bremerton has toured Albers Vista and says that, unlike a large public garden such as the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Albers makes a fantastic garden seem attainable.

"The difference seems to be that John shows what mere mortals can do," she said. "You really do feel like you can go home and experiment."

Some say that since Heronswood Garden in Kingston closed a few years ago, Albers Vista Gardens is without equal in Kitsap County. Heronswood was renowned for its collection of rare plants and educational garden tours. John and Santica have a similar vision for their property and hope the foundation will be able to raise enough funds to build a solid base of caretakers, members and volunteers.

Peg Tillery, horticulture and shoreline educator for WSU-Kitsap Extension, says there's a need for educational sites like Albers Vista. She assists with horticultural programs at high schools in Kitsap County and says the site could provide a great learning opportunity.

"There is not a single place like his in Kitsap County," she says. "We see this as a learning site for students learning about horticulture."

Ms. Tillery also oversees the master gardener program in Kitsap County and says that, because of its potential as a public resource, Albers Vista is an authorized work location for master gardeners who need to fulfill their volunteer commitment.

Landscape Designer Kate Eastman of Port Orchard is an enthusiastic volunteer on the Albers Vista Gardens Foundation board of directors. The board's work is in its infancy, but Eastman says she and the rest of the board believe they're working toward something with significant long-term value to the community.

"I really appreciate having a resource like that here so that our community can see what's possible," she says. "It's a really unique piece of property."

At the moment, she says the board is focused on "actively asking people to become members of the garden." That effort will begin to provide the resources necessary to ensure the garden can be further developed, maintained, and more readily available to the public.

In the meantime, John and Santica continue to manage the gardens on their own — a monumental task for the not-yet-retired couple. Both work in medical research at the University of Washington, making for a long weekday commute. Santica also travels frequently for work.

"I'm the curator, the weeder, the planter ... I'm the everything," says John, a bit uneasy about keeping up with it all. He quickly adds, though, that he's passionate about what the future might hold. "There's very little environmental education in Kitsap County, and we hope to add to that in this area."

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