History and horticulture meet at Bainbridge Gardens

I’ve been to Bainbridge Gardens a dozen or so times. I knew it had history, but I didn’t know so much of it was still alive, growing in quiet spots throughout the nursery.

For 50 Years, Bainbridge Gardens Has Been a Labor of One Man’s Love
By Tristan Baurick

They’re slower and a little stiffer than they used to be, but Junkoh Harui’s hands are his most prized heirlooms.

They’ve threaded miles of irrigation pipe, shaped hundreds of bonsais and rebuilt Bainbridge Gardens, a nursery that has become one of the island’s most storied landmarks.

“My father, when he came to America, was like a lot of other young men in Japan,” Harui said, sitting in his cramped office at the center of Bainbridge Gardens’ sprawling greenery. “He came from a farm. He didn’t speak English. He was a man who was uneducated, but he had these two beautiful tools.”

Harui holds up his own 75-year-old hands.

“These carried him a long way in his life,” he said.

While Harui’s father Zenhichi carved Bainbridge Gardens from a virgin forest along Miller Road, it was Harui who smoothed the business into a celebrated destination for the region�s gardeners.

“It’s too good of a place not to carry on another 50 or 100 years,” said gardening book author and Bainbridge Gardens customer Ann Lovejoy. “Junkoh has such experienced staff, and a beautiful location, and the gardens have a heritage that you can see when you walk through them.”

The tallest reminders of Bainbridge Gardens� rich history are the Japanese red pines towering over the nursery’s nature trail.

Harui’s father, who brought the seeds with him from Japan, hurriedly planted the saplings in the hours before he and his family were forced off the island during World War II.

A smaller, more hidden reminder is the gnarled pear tree that Junkoh freed from blackberry vines in the late 1980s, years after the family returned to the island. Trained by Zenhichi into the shape of its
namesake fruit, the nearly century-old tree had held its form during the war years when much of the nursery and surrounding gardens were swallowed by weeds.

Other hints of the family’s past crowd Harui’s office wall. Old photographs depict a produce stand and a few dusty rows that once sprouted crops where Bainbridge Gardens now sits.

“My father came to work in the mill at Port Blakely, the largest mill in the world,” Harui said, eyeing a photo of his father taken shortly after he arrived on Bainbridge in 1908. “But there was some disillusionment as far as that goes. There was the idea that you were supposed to make a lot of money and go back to Japan. But that wasn’t true.”

The former farm boy found that his talents as a grower of flowers and vegetables could better support his family, which eventually included five children.

Along with his mill wages, Zenhichi used the sales from his vegetable garden to bulk up savings, eventually buying 20 acres on Miller Road. In short order, his farm blossomed into a nursery and greenhouses full of exotic plants, a general store, gas station and traditional Japanese gardens, a rare sight for the island’s pioneers.

All the family had built was abandoned shortly after the U.S. declared war on Japan. The federal government ordered residents of Japanese ancestry off the island. They were given eight days to pack.

Harui, then 10 years old, remembers his father scrambling put his pine saplings in the ground and find a caretaker for the nursery, store and his gardens.

The family avoided the internment camps by agreeing to move east of the Cascades, near Moses Lake, where they spent the war farming a rented plot.

“When we returned, the greenhouses had collapsed and the nice, beautiful gardens my father had made were gone,” Harui said. “We had left everything to some individuals who didn�t take care of it. Everything was destroyed or taken by thieves.”

On drives around Bainbridge, Harui recalls his father pointing to some of the nursery’s finest specimens, now gracing the front yards of opportunistic islanders.

“My father was getting up there in age and never did succeed in building the nursery back,” he said.

Harui graduated from Bainbridge High School and earned a business degree from the University of Washington. He’d decided to abandon the family business. Laying irrigation pipe and fussing over bonsais seemed a step backward into a trade that had ended in misfortune for his parents. Just before embarking on a career in the banking industry, Harui was drafted by the Army and shipped off to Europe.

The French countryside reignited a desire to earn a livelihood with the tools his father taught him to use.

“That time was a blessing, and so I became a florist,” he said. “I took care of flowers, like my father.”

In 1958, he and his wife, Chris, opened the island’s first flower shop alongside Town & Country Market. Over the next 50 years, the business took various shapes, including an expanded flower and nursery business at the intersection of High School Road and State Route 305.

Then the bulldozers came, uprooting his nursery to make way for what eventually became the Village shopping center. Harui was tempted to move his nursery across the highway, onto land offered by family friends. Moving back to Miller Road was also an option, but not one Harui favored. It was a ghostly place with sagging and rusted reminders of all that his father built and lost.

“I went anyway,” he said. “It was one of the best decisions of my life.”

His daughter, Donna, remembers the day in 1989 that his father returned.

“The weeds were as tall as me,” she said. “Only vines were holding up the general store.”

The buildings went down, and backhoes cleared the rest. By late August, Bainbridge Gardens was open for business, again.

“I had to work with a lot of memories,” Harui said. “But it gave me great satisfaction.”

Donna, who works as the nursery’s sales manager, credits her father for a few cutting edge additions to the business.

“He wanted to have a cafe on-site,” she said, noting the New Rose Cafe, a quiet lunch spot tucked into the gardens. “He was thinking of this in the ’80s, when you just didn’t see many espresso stands.”

Harui’s decision to sell only nontoxic garden remedies was also forward thinking.

“Getting off the drugs was new back then,” said Lovejoy, who helped Bainbridge Gardens swap its chemical products for organic ones in 2000. The move inspired other nurseries to do the same, and to send their staff to Bainbridge Gardens for training in natural garden care.

Harui chuckles a bit about the newfangled things he’s tried with his business. They’re nice additions, he admits, but his success is due to the old-fashioned stuff: good employees, good products and good customers.

“I’ve been shopping here for 25 years,” said island resident Cassie Picha after buying cartload of potted plants. “I’ve probably got a thousand Bainbridge Gardens plants in my own garden. I love the history here. There’s something poetic about the closed circle of Junkoh picking up where his parents left off. It�s an amazing place.”

Harui is proud of the relationship generations of gardeners have had with Bainbridge Gardens, and that a fourth generation of Haruis will ensure future relationships.

These thoughts comfort him, he said, as he feels his hands, those old tools passed on to him by his father, loose their grip on the business. Known for his seven-day workweeks, Harui has cut his schedule back to three days. A recent trip to the doctor, and a lot more to follow, brought on the changes.

“I’ve been under the weather now with this situation with cancer,” he said, noting the recent diagnosis almost as an offhand remark. “But it gives me courage that I have enjoyed life and rebuilt Bainbridge Gardens. I’ve kept it going because I know I’ll see mom and dad in the big sky. I think they will be happy to see me, with what I’ve done here, and that I carried it on as far as I could go.”