At A Stop Light: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel

On my way to the last Heronswood Nursery west coast open house for 2011, I paused at a red light and waited to turn left. Coming from the opposite direction, I saw a motorcycle. It was very early morning, Saturday. There were few other vehicles on the road. The motorcycle was coming fast, accelerating hard down a hill, maybe a quarter mile away. Even at that distance I could see that it was a sport bike with the driver practically lying on the seat.

Virtually all motorcycles are quick these days. Generally, they go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 4 seconds. The fast ones do it in less than 3 seconds. And unless they are large cruisers, most will do a quarter mile at well over 120 mph. This particular one was hitting the mid 120s. For a moment, I thought he wouldn’t be able to stop before the light. Then I remembered how light the bike must be and what great brakes it no doubt had.

The driver began slowing. I imagined the satisfying feeling of force shoving him forward as the brakes caught and held and him bracing against the handle bars and gripping the seat with his knees. As he approached the stop light, there was a dip in the road, and from my perspective all but the top part of the driver and the bike’s wind screen disappeared. Then that too was gone. Like slowed frames of film, I saw for an instant his legs in the air and then maybe the bike’s wheels as it flew up and over. It all happened lightning fast and seemed rather like the ultimate goal of his unconscious mind: instant death. “I do not like my life; please remove it immediately.”

I drove a motorcycle when I was 20. It was a well-used 1967 BMW R69S—a fine machine. I weighed about 110 lbs; it weighed 450 lbs, so we were a bit mismatched. There was a rhythm to getting it on its kick stand. I perfected that because not to do so conflicted with my image of myself at that time. Once or twice, on soft ground, the bike fell over. It was a struggle to get it up again. Once I ran out of gas late at night; I couldn’t very well leave the bike by the side of the road, and I was far from a gas station. So I pushed. While pushing up a long, steep hill, I had to lean into the bike and move it little more than 20 feet at a time before breaking and resting. After the hill, it was easier, but I pushed most of the night.

That bike made me feel exceedingly hip and cool. It was very fast and powerful. Of course, by today’s standards, it was a dog with a maximum speed of only 110 or so. Who knows what its 0-to-60 statistic was? But speed wasn’t entirely the point—it was smooth, comfortable, and easy to ride. In one 24-hour period, I rode it over 1000 miles. A mythological creature. But I drove that bike for half a year only before I wrecked it as I was approaching an interstate entrance.

I still don’t know what I did. I was going maybe 50, my attention wavered, and then I simply drove off a gentle curve in the road. “Ride it out,” I thought. But the bike hit the ditch, went sideways, and down and over. I was hurled off. My helmet had deep gouges on one side, and one of the bike’s valve covers was torn off. I was otherwise unhurt, although I had a stiff neck for a month afterwards. It all happened so fast.

I don’t know what caused this kid last week to crash. But before he crashed, the bike had almost stopped; then it violently pitched up to its right and over, its driver catapulted and flipped over onto the ditch. Mechanical failure is not likely; maybe he caught a right-side foot peg on the concrete of the curb. If so, there should be tell-tale scratches on the curb. I meant to go back and look, but I never did.

I could see him getting up, and by the time the light had turned green, two cars had stopped. Their drivers had already reached the kid and his wrecked motorcycle. He was on his feet now, standing still and maybe trying to figure out what had happened. For him too, it had all happened so fast. I wanted to stop to see if he was OK, but with the other drivers there, I figured I could do nothing more than they had already done, so I drove on to Heronswood and the Garden Conservancy-sponsored open house.

In gardens, the world is controlled. It seems nothing “happens so fast”. You know, more or less, what to expect. Time in a garden is almost time outside of time. Gardens hold the security of the past and the promise of the future. You proceed with certain thoughts or impulses, and only later are you certain where you were headed. In gardens, we overlook motorcycle wrecks, the gyrations of the stock market, and the intractability of society.

Sure, the sense of control and timelessness are an illusion. Precipitous things happen all the time in the garden. Small or large, calamity strikes: vermin, deer, disease—you name it. All damage or take plants and fruits before you can stop them or even know enough to try. Certainty and control are not assured. Plants fail to thrive or die often for reasons unknown. And there’s weather—wind, heat or cold, floods, hail. But for us, these are not life and death issues.

The gardens at Heronswood are a fine example of a controlled world that can seem outside of time. Unique patterns or combinations of plants in different stages of growth appear fixed and controlled—like three-dimensional snapshots in time. But, simultaneously, Heronswood is changing, always different, from week to week and year to year. Currently, fall is coming on, and things look a little drab; chlorophyll is breaking down and other pigments showing: some brighter, most duller. The summer composites are in full display, and a few of the small fall blooming plants such as cyclamen are showing. A few of the hydrangeas are absolutely spectacular, while others look a little faded.

It has been a treat for me to attend these open houses at Heronswood and to see the progression of the seasons through the lens of the plants at Heronswood. If you missed them this year, watch the website for coming events in spring, and enjoy your fall.

End of the day. Heronswood parking lot ringed by Douglas fir.

Giant Gunnera.

Australian tree fern at bog.

Stachyurus ‘Magpie’



Ferns and cyclamen.

Hydrangea aspera

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ panicle

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Taube’

Impatiens omeiana from western China.

Phlox paniculata

Daphniphyllum macropodum subsp. himalayense leaf cluster.

Blue Aster

Fuchsia ‘Rose of Castile Improved’

Kitchen garden in morning.

King slaw hybrid cabbage


Teddy Bear sunflower

Heliopsis scrabra

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 20th, 2011 at 1:30 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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28 Responses to “At A Stop Light: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel”

  1. Rebecca Sink-Burris said:

    Our young daughter’s eyes were opened one fall when she found out that I was planting bulbs that would not come up until the next spring. She was amazed that as a gardener one plans what to her young eyes was far into the future. When a bit older,in high school she wondered about other students who did not know what they wanted to do with their lives and who were not looking ahead. Making me wonder if this idea of looking to the future began in the garden?

    • Nick said:

      Great story, Rebecca. Your daughter sounds very self directed and mature. “Life’s not a dress rehearsal”—at great lesson to learn early. I’m sure she’ll do well at anything she puts her mind to. No doubt you had something to do with that too. Thanks for writing.

  2. Al Privette said:

    Time speeds to a blurr when a hurricane (in this cas, Irene), or other such devastating natural event, strikes the garden. You see years of hard work (not to mention the plants you hold dear) destroyed ….. as blown up by a crazy explosion, in reality lasting hours. Maybe it’s the sensory overload of all that’s happening that makes it seem (after it’s quiet again)like a flash. It can leave you breathless to witness, and can take the wind out of one’s sails for who knows how long. Maybe I’ll pick up the shovel and catalogs again next spring …. maybe.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Al,

      Sorry for your loss. Time heals most things. Hope you can rehabilitate your garden in the spring.

  3. Suzanne Hissung said:

    As always, beautiful pictures. Thank you for remembering my request Nick.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Suzanne,

      My pleasure; also, it was nice to see you.

  4. Susan Wallace said:

    Thanks – It’s unlikely I’ll be able to get back to Heronswood again, but the photos are lovely!

    • Nick said:

      Dear Susan,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and write.

  5. Some of these pictures look positively prehistoric – a gentle reminder that even plants that we know well, under certain circumstances show us a different side. Kind of like humans I guess. Thanks for sharing.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Cynthia,

      I think that’s a compliment; thank you. Also I agree with your observation; I see a different side of the garden at Heronswood every time I’m there.

  6. Where have you guys been? I so look forward to getting these beautiful emails from you … and reading the archives.

    Sylvia @ Sissinghurst

    • Nick said:

      Sorry, Sylvia. I guess we’ve been busy—fall is planting and planning time. Thanks for taking the time to write. The archives are always available, of course.

  7. mdbourke said:

    “seemed rather like the ultimate goal of his unconscious mind: instant death. “I do not like my life; please remove it immediately.””

    That is one of the wieredest comments I have ever read. What if his unconcsious mind said: “Whoa, I am driving poorly, better shape up, I have too much to be thankful for, too much to live for!” That is what I prefer.

    • Nick said:

      Dear md,

      You’re probably right that it’s hard to impute anyone’s inner thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  8. anet said:

    loved the cardoon best

    • Nick said:

      Dear Amanda,

      Thanks for your kind words. The cardoons are pretty nice; they also make pretty good additions to soups and such.

  9. Rhonda Rashanii Mack said:

    Thank you for that …eye opening..and heart opening story. As I’m working on the inside of my house to look more and more like your beautiful garden.. Looking forward to when I can walk through the trails to see all your amazing gifts of god…\\\\//// Rashanii\\\//

    • Nick said:

      Dear Rashanii,

      I would love to see the inside of your house. I don’t know where you’re located, but if you’re anywhere near Doylestown, PA, where Fordhook Farm (where W. Atlee Burpee did all of his initial work) is located, please come to the open houses there. If anything, Fordhook Farm is more beautiful than Heronswood. Thanks for posting.

  10. Nancy Jones said:

    Dear Nick, I also write a newsletter and am saving this one of yours because I love the line: “Time in a garden is almost time outside of time.” The context and exceptions that proceed and follow make it an even better statement. I do think your account of the motorcycle wreck was a little drawn out. I hope he was alright too. Thanks for sharing, Nancy

    • Nick said:

      Dear Nancy,

      By all means save the piece. If you use it somehow, please credit Heronswood Voice. Thanks for taking the time to read and write in.

  11. Mary Kay Branch said:

    Dear Nick,
    I really, REALLY hope you can help me find a indigofera pendula. I bought one from Heronswood several years ago and last November’s sudden extreme cold spell (we live on Camano Island) killed it. I loved it and I’m crushed. Have done quite a bit of web search and can’t seem to find it anywhere. Can you give me some guidance as to where to look? Thanks! Mary Kay

  12. cheryl said:

    Hello….as i read this tonight, I am so confused. We live in PA, Bucks County, so have been to open house a few times at the Doylestown location. However, on a trip to the Northwest just last week, we searched for Heronswood near Kingston, Washington and were quite disappointed to find our information was no accurate. We did stop at a neighboring nursery and the man there and at the Chamber of Commerce said Heronswood was no more.
    Now I see mention of an Open House on the west coast….please clarify.
    Thank you!!!!!!!!!!

    • Nick said:

      Dear Cheryl,

      There were four open houses at Heronswood this year; the last one was September 10. The information you were given is incorrect or at least incomplete. What they may have meant is that Heronswood is no longer a drop-in retail nursery; it is primarily mail order with on-site sales at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, PA scheduled on special weekends in the summer. But that said, Heronswood Nursery is very much open for business. Check it out on-line ( if you do not have a catalog. Sorry to have missed you at the last Heronswood open house.

      Best regards


  13. cheryl said:

    Hi and thank you for your attempt to clarify. However, the very first sentence of your article mentions the west coast open house. Now I am not likely to get to that part of the country anytime soon but just wonder if in fact there is something, anything in Washington or Oregon. As for PA, I have been going to Burpee for many years and even have shopped at the Warminster store. However, just curious about “west coast”. I know once when we were at the Doylestown site, the tour guide spoke of plants that thrive in the north west and the experiments that were being conducted to see what would grow in the PA climate.

    thanks again

    • Nick said:

      Dear Cheryl,

      Yes, indeed, Heronswood Nursery is located at Kingston, WA. It is a thriving and mature garden. We had four open houses there this summer. The last one was 10 September. I think the person or people you talked to in Kingston must have meant that Heronswood is no longer a retail nursery that one can visit to buy plants; otherwise, I can’t image what he or they were telling you.

  14. cheryl said:

    OK….thanks again. It was most confusing and because we did not have details, we took the ferry from Edmunds to Kingston looking for Heronswood. Just to satisfy my curiousity, where are you located? We have relatives in Portland and maybe at some point they can attend an Open House.

    Best wishes…..

    • Nick said:

      Hi Cheryl,

      Here’s the address of the nursery (7530 NE 288th Street, Kingston, WA 98346). Plug it into Google Maps and you will see a bird’s eye view of the area. You can zoom out and see where Kingston itself is and follow the roads (visually) to the nursery. If you zoom in, you can actually see individual buildings, paths, and some of the gardens (not with enough resolution to actually identify plants unfortunately).

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