By Beth Barrett, Photos by Marie Jones.
Sometimes our childhood settings shape our future. For Burien resident Keith Wilson, that place was a multi-generational farm in Illinois that began in 1818; his fourth great-grandfather settled on the farm, a thousand acres of virgin forest and prairie ground acquired through a federal land grant.
Both of his grandmothers were passionate gardeners who lived nearby during his childhood. Keith recounts, “My paternal grandmother used to carry me down to the river that ran diagonally through the property and sit and meditatively look at the surrounding beauty. She would tell me all the names of the plants.” He added, “She had a huge vegetable garden and lots of flowers also. I would just follow her around — I loved it! I probably spent more time with my gentle grandma since my mother was preoccupied with five busy boys.”
His maternal grandmother’s garden fascinated Keith. “She had had to be very creative with that giant garden to feed seven kids on a limited pastor’s salary,” he mused. Keith loved the beauty of the farm because it was all around him. He dug up flowers and plants near the stream, transplanting them around the farmhouse. Little baby “pawpaws,” seedlings growing in the floodplain, were gingerly relocated.
Years passed, and Keith attended Blackburn College, majoring in biology, “only because they did not have a botany degree.” He then completed three years of postgraduate work in plant taxonomy at Southern Illinois University, one of the foremost departments in the nation at that time.
He began his career cataloging the “pre-settlement vegetation” throughout the state’s diverse habitats. Illinois varies from old-growth forests in the north and south, prairie grasses with woodland islands in the central region, and peat bogs in the northern areas. “I flew in a small plane, balancing my notebook and dictaphone on my lap, all while trying not to get sick!” Keith amusingly recounts. “Illinois was the first state in the nation to catalog the vegetation before it was disturbed by agricultural and urban growth. We were recording the huge diversity of the remaining natural land,” he explained.
Later, Keith moved to the Pacific Northwest and immersed himself in learning about the verdant plant life of our region. Now a hobby, he reflected, “I get great pleasure and delight working in my garden, walking around, eating a juicy berry, smelling the medicinal herbs and fragrant flowers—it’s a daily source of joy.” His scientific mind and mastery of botanical design have inspired Keith to call the Northwest “God’s Garden.”
My friend Marie and I recently toured Keith’s backyard paradise — a prodigious collection of diverse plants. Here are a few images from our afternoon together.
A Pictorial View
Take a walk through Keith’s garden, and you’ll find an amazing variety of plants. Some are rare, and one he has owned for 40 years. There are edibles mixed right in with beautiful ornamentals. Each evening Keith enjoys a huge salad from his garden that contains more than ten different types of greens. There are also herbs and fruits to be found as well.