Notes from San Francisco
by Roy L. Hudson
This morning (Dec. 7, 1956) Golden Gate Park looks like a Christmas card. The lawns and roofs are snowy white with our first heavy frost. The air is still and the sun is brilliant. This could well be the end of what promised to be a great display of bud-tender rhododendrons. However we have had one of the longest dry, sunny periods on record with a few light frosts which have hardened and conditioned the plants and we will probably have very few losses.
The above conditions were ideal for trapping the sugars and tannins in the leaves of many trees so that our fall color display was the best in years. It also slowed vegetative growth and caused a heavy bud set in rhododendrons. With any luck the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell will be a terrific sight in April and May.
Our success with Rhododendron nuttallii in full exposure has created considerable interest. Many critics expressed an opinion that it was only a flash in the pan and that the first serious trial either of heat or cold would write finis to the planting. So far success has been extraordinary and although many buds turned brown last year from late frosts we still had an enormous crop of flowers. We did not look for as numerous a bud set this year and in fact some of the plants did not set heavily, however, there are enough to give a good display if the frosts are not too severe.
The bed of Rhododendron burmanicum is still thriving, with an occasional bloom here and there to remind us of the beauties to come. Nothing seems to affect this splendid rhododendron and the bud set is nearly one hundred per cent regardless of the weather.
Rhododendron 'Pink Delight' and 'Ivory's Scarlet' always vie for first place and both are showing some bloom which will continue for several months. These older hybrids are too large for the small garden but they are such sturdy and dependable plants that they should be used where room permits. The first flowers of winter or spring in the Rhododendron Dell are always so much more exciting than the late season varieties that come when one is surfeited with the overwhelming display of May.
Rhododendron 'Sir Frederick Moore' is another large growing variety with immense trusses of flowers. Last spring they were touching all over the plant almost completely hiding the foliage. We removed the spent flowers as soon as they faded and a plentiful new crop of buds are swelling. This practice has proved to be very effective in producing a good crop of flowers each year and eliminates the cropping of which many amateurs complain. It would be impossible to remove spent flowers from all of our plants, but we make a serious effort to remove as many of them from the smaller and newer varieties as possible.
Our propagators are growing more and more clones from cuttings. The aid of a mist system permits rooting many varieties that have always been difficult. It will be of great interest to see how well these clones can succeed on their own roots. Too many fine plants are lost due to a failure of the graft.
The heavy mulch of shavings that we put between the plants a couple of years ago have materially aided in our fight to control weeds. We still use a mixture of delta peat and pine needles as a mulch out to the drip line of the plants. After several years of trying we are due to receive a brush chipper this winter, which will produce quantities of fine mulching material.
My recent visit to the Portland Test Garden and the Seattle area made me realize how very lucky we are in the San Francisco Bay area. We have all the good conditions and do not need to fear the cold. However the longer we grow rhododendrons the more we realize that each area has its outstanding successes and also partial or complete failures. Fortunately the rhododendron family is large and varied enough to give everyone something of beauty and interest.
The future of the McLaren Dell is bright. An extension of our irrigation system will permit a larger species section under more suitable conditions. Another attempt is being made to get fencing and paving in the Dell. Many fine plants are growing lustily in our nursery and only time and man power can hold us back.
May I repeat that all signs look promising for a great show in May and well worth a stop-over if you are in our section this spring.