Field day March 1: Volunteers cultivate unique public gardens

By Cathy McKenzie, WSU Mount Vernon

iris-80MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – Taking their cue from honey bees, volunteers at Washington State University Mount Vernon’s public orchard and display gardens are doing anything but hibernating this time of year.

At the annual Winter Field Day March 1, the six-acre orchard will buzz with members of the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation giving hands-on lessons in grafting, pruning and other fruit-growing topics. The event is free for WWFRF members, $15 for non-members or $30 for non-member families.

100 volunteers; 5,000 hours

The foundation is one of three volunteer groups responsible for creating, developing and managing the eight-acre Volunteer Display Gardens, situated just north of the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center at 16650 State Route 536.

Three volunteer groups work year-round with WSU Mount Vernon Facilities Manager Dan Gorton to maintain the unique 8 acres of public gardens on display near the research center. (Photo by Kim Binczewski)

The other two volunteer groups are the WSU Skagit County Extension Master Gardeners and the Salal Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society. Between the three, more than 100 volunteers log nearly 5,000 hours each year in designing, planting, cultivating, weeding and maintaining this unique assortment of gardens, which are on display to the public daily dawn to dusk.

“Many of the volunteers have been working in the gardens since they were established here in the 1990s,” said WSU Mount Vernon Facilities Manager Dan Gorton, who serves as liaison between the research center and the volunteer groups.

“The gardens help bridge gaps between the intricate detail of scientific research occurring at WSU Mount Vernon, commercial-scale production agriculture and the home gardener who represents the majority of our population,” he said. “We are all dependent on one another.”

Inspired to share

The gardens’ uniqueness extends beyond design and plantings to the relationships that have grown between the research center, the volunteer groups and the community.

“Each group holds different events each year to share what they have to offer with the public above and beyond the gardens they display,” said Gorton. Events include plant sales to the public that raise funds to defray garden maintenance costs.

“The Master Gardeners also hold trainings and ‘Know and Grow’ lectures in our Sakuma Auditorium,” Gorton said. “The Winter Field Day is one of two such annual events held by the WWFRF that have both indoor training and outdoor hands-on learning or fruit picking.”

Volunteers share a sense of pride in the work they do on behalf of the gardens, the university and the visiting public, he said.

“The garden groups are essentially guests on WSU property,” he said. “But they all take ownership in the care of their gardens and work with an inspiring spirit to share their knowledge of gardening and the beauty they have created.

“Volunteers also step up each year and help with WSU events such as the annual Kneading Conference West (now known as The Grain Gathering), which attracts more than 300 people,” Gorton said. “Many event activities actually occur in the gardens. They showcase – to attendees from all over the United States, Canada and the world – just how incredible these gardens and the people who maintain them really are.”

Gardens grow over time

The fruit research foundation, which encourages organic growing methods, was created in 1991 to assist with tree-fruit varietal work at the research center. The fruit garden/orchard was designed and created by members to allow the public to view successful fruit varieties and cultural methods for the Pacific maritime climate.

The fruit garden features oval plantings of heirloom apples, nuts, stone-fruit trees and fruits recommended for the area, as well as arbors for wine and table grapes, kiwis and other vines. There are examples of espalier designs and ornamental/edible landscaping.

The Discovery Garden was first envisioned by the WSU Master Gardeners to interest, inspire and educate the public; develop a garden for community use and enjoyment; and enhance the quality of the Skagit County environment. After two years of planning, its initial structure was established in 1996.

Visitors wind through a variety of Pacific Northwest-themed displays, ranging from a shade garden to hot and cool color borders, an evergreen corner, an ornamental grass garden, seasonal gardens, a cottage garden, an herb garden and a children’s garden – complete with ABC and fairy gardens, a waterfall and a maze.

The half-acre Native Plant Garden nurtures the seeds for future lower Skagit Valley native plants. It was created 15 years ago by the native plant society and has evolved to include a multi-layered garden canopy of trees and shrubs, extensive mounds supporting native plants of varied textures and colors, and a pond hosting its own non-native resident bullfrog population and the occasional great blue heron.

Part of Skagit tulip touring

Gorton said the gardens allow the community to “share a piece of the research center and showcase what can be grown in our maritime climate.” One example of the gardens’ impact on the community is their inclusion as an official stop on the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival tour map, he said.

For more information about volunteering at the public gardens, contact:


Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation:

Sue Williams, president,, 206-383-8033



WSU Master Gardeners:

Sacha Buller, coordinator,,  360-428-4270 x227



Washington Native Plant Society Salal Chapter:

Susan Alaynick, chairperson,, 360-659-8792




Dan Gorton, WSU Mount Vernon facilities manager,, 360-848-6133