Pulling back the curtain on Manzanita’s Wonder Garden

Described by its fans as a lifesaver during this year of isolation, the Hoff Online program celebrates Manzanita Day with a talk by Ketzel Levine

Ketzel Levine is returning to her home in Manzanita from a wholesale plant shopping trip when we connect by phone to talk about the Hoffman Center for the Arts’ Hoff Online program. 

It’s the nonprofit’s answer to COVID restrictions, and one Levine says has been described by its many fans — some as far away as New Zealand, Great Britain, and Spain — as a lifesaver during this year of isolation. The webinars and Zoom presentations have offered hundreds of participants instruction in everything from poetry to gardening to marketing their books. On March 31, Levine will headline Manzanita Day 2021, celebrating the art of horticulture and the town named for the shrub (arctostaphylos) that translates in Spanish to “little apple.”  

In pre-COVID days, Ketzel Levine (far right) leads a discussion in the Wonder Garden.  She says the garden has become the No. 1 gathering place in Manzanita for people who wanted to get together in masks. Photo courtesy: Ketzel Levine
In pre-COVID days, Ketzel Levine (far right) leads a discussion in the Wonder Garden. She says the garden has become the No. 1 gathering place in Manzanita for people who want to get together in masks. Photo courtesy: Ketzel Levine

Levine, who you might know as NPR’s “doyenne of dirt,” is the self-proclaimed director of the Center’s Wonder Garden and as such, directs the horticulture programs. The gardening guru moved to the North Coast about four years ago and says she was quickly “snatched up” by the center as a volunteer. 

“We are creating a small botanic garden that is showcasing all of the different plants from around the world that thrive on the northwest coast,” Levine said. “All of our plants are labeled with beautiful arboretum-quality labels. We give weekly talks and walks through the garden and we are constantly raising money, and people have been responsive. During COVID, the garden has become the No. 1 gathering place for people who wanted to get together with masks.”

Levine may have decades of broadcast journalism experience, but virtual gigs nonetheless have provided her some lessons.  The most memorable came when the Hoffman Center hosted Jeffrey Bale, native Oregonian and internationally known pebble-mosaic artist.

Manzanita’s Hoffman Wonder Garden showcases plants from around the world that thrive on the northwest coast, all with arboretum-quality labels.  Photo courtesy: Ketzel Levine
Manzanita’s Hoffman Wonder Garden showcases plants from around the world that thrive on the northwest coast, all with arboretum-quality labels. Photo courtesy: Ketzel Levine

“When word got out that the horticulture arts program was hosting Jeffrey Bale, his gazillion Facebook followers signed up,” Levine recalls of the program last June. “We had people from every conceivable time zone … maybe 140 people signed up to come to this talk. Little did I know that with a webinar or Zoom talk, you couldn’t have more than 100 people.”

As she moderated the presentation, Levine began seeing emails from would-be attendees who had been denied access. And they weren’t happy.  

“I thought that they were going to hunt me down and shoot me,“ Levine recalled. “It was amusing and appalling. What can you do? It was recorded. The moral: People are passionate about plants and gardens. The fact that it moved online didn’t seem to matter to any of them.”

Not all Hoff Online programs are quite that successful, but for a town with a full-time population of roughly 600, they do pack them in. 

The virtual programs began last April and include both webinars and Zoom presentations. The webinars feature a speaker and have room for 100 participants — invisible to each other. Webinars have included artist interviews, horticulture talks, and music appreciation.

“Contrast those with workshops and classes, also live through Zoom, but also people are part of the class and can interact throughout the whole process,” said Sharon Gibson, Hoffman volunteer and member of the board of directors. “We’ve done botanical drawing, watercolor classes, sketchbooks … usually done in series.”

Between April and December, Hoff Online offered 27 Zoom sessions and classes, 11 webinars, and four comprehensive art classes, drawing more than 500 participants, Gibson said. 

Laura Bailey says classes offered by the Hoffman Center for the Arts compare favorably to those available in metro areas.
Laura Bailey says classes offered by the Hoffman Center for the Arts compare favorably to those available in metro areas.

Laura Bailey has had a place in Manzanita since 2003, but family responsibilities and her career as a development economist took her away for a number of years. Before returning about two-and-a-half years ago, she lived in Washington, D.C.; Papua, New Guinea; and Armenia. She has taken part in more than a half-dozen writing and fine arts classes that stand up nicely by comparison to offerings in metro areas, she said.

“The quality of the instructors and writers and their commitment and presence in the class was equally good,” she said. “I’ve had really spectacular quality. The big difference for this small town program is volume and diversity.”

She’s hopeful Hoff Online will continue even after virtual gatherings are no longer necessary. Meanwhile, Levine is readying her talk for Manzanita Day — complete with a title sure to bring a smile. 

“The name of the talk is How to Kill a Manzanita and Other Dark Tales from the Hoffman Wonder Garden,” she said.  

“I chose that because the key to gardening is killing plants,” Levine said. “That’s how you learn. Nobody really wants to talk about it. I heard from a very famous gardener back in the ‘80s, ‘You are not stretching yourself as a gardener if you are not killing plants.’ I take that to heart.

“I have killed manzanita in the Wonder Garden, and I am growing 15 that are spectacular, and that’s because I learned which will grow and which will not. I wanted to pull back the curtain and reveal the wizard is an ordinary person, one who kills plants. So, when you are looking at the Wonder Garden, you will see it is trial and error.” 

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