Vanca Lumsden with one of many pieces of colorful artwork used at the recent Northwest Flower & Garden Show. (Patricia Guthrie / Whidbey News-Times)

Whidbey couple build whimsical garden creations

FREELAND — Vanca Lumsden likes to say if you’re sitting on a bench made of old barn wood and willow branches anywhere on Whidbey Island, she and her husband Joe probably made it.

The couple, both 74, say the idea to start their company, ALBE Rustics, came when they looked around Whidbey and saw artists making all kinds of things … “everything except making rustic furniture.”

So they created simple tables, benches, plant holders and many other functional art pieces using corkscrew willow and old wood recycled from barns and other buildings.

People call them when their willow trees need trimming and they keep an eye out for the rustic-looking wood that’s shabby chic.

They build their products in a shed and huge caravan tent located outside their mobile home back in the rolling woods west of Freeland.

Timbuktu restaurant and coffee shop in Freeland and outlets in Seattle and Bellingham sell their woody wares. Their big sales occur at markets in Everett, Spokane and Oak Harbor.

Vanca is a long-time participant in the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, where she pairs up with friend Judith Jones, owner of Fancy Fronds Nursery in Gold Bar. For some 20 years, the two designed, put together plants, flowers, metal and wood artwork and starred in their own displays.

Examples of some themes and what they featured include the following: Art Deco, ostrich feathers; Beast in the Sea, a life-size wooden animal lounging in the trees; Outback in Time, a 9-foot volcano; and Subdivision Sunrise, a cul de sac with “Wind in the Willows” row boat and frog.

Their booth this year was called Bugs Abode: Life Under the Lettuce Leaf. It taught how bugs are beneficial and complete many tasks, such as pollination and composting.

Vanca and Judith dressed up as butterflies and chased one another with a big net throughout the five-day show held every February at the Seattle Convention Center.

They’ve also won many awards, even though they are competing against big and boulder-size landscaping companies. Twice, they’ve won the Founder’s Award, which is the equivalent of Best in Show.

“They do a really good job of the theatricality of what we do here,” said Lloyd Glasscock, coordinator of the massive Flower & Garden show that requires almost four days of setup.

“We are in the entertain business, it’s not just the garden business. And they are unique in embracing that.”

Vanca and Joe Lumsden have lived on Whidbey on and off over the years with stints in Oregon, where they first dated many, many decades ago. They’d both been married, had kids, when they met again.

“We were both single at the same time 30 years ago and we got back together,” says Vanca.

Joe’s past lives include engineering, forestry and the telephone industry, while Vanca has sold water lilies on the West Coast.

They lived at Quail Walk in Greenbank for eight years, then moved to the Oregon Coast, where, Joe says, “they thought our furniture down there would make good kindling.”

They’re both handy and innovative in coming up with new and practical uses of old materials. Their most popular creation is a small wooden box with a willow handle that sells for about $20 to $25.

“I used to call them garden baskets. Then I discovered there’s an English word for a certain kind of carrier called trugs,” Vanca explains. “So I called them trugs and that started really selling. It’s all in the marketing.”

When showing off her work studio, Vanca likes to point out: “Good tools are the key. And men, they’ve been giving women a dull saw and too-small hammers for years.”

Actually, they don’t use hammers much, preferring a compressor-powered staple gun because staples work better than nails on their designs.

“We don’t even sand them anymore,” she says of their benches and baskets. “It’s the rustic look that everyone wants.”

The couple will also design custom wood work for people’s homes and businesses. They are able to make enough of a living to supplement their other income and live up to the name of their ALBE business, which stands for Joe’s favorite saying: A Little Bit Easier.

“We’re as busy as want to be,” he deadpans.

“We’re not that ambitious.”

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