Experiences and Problems of an Amateur Rhododendron Grower
By George D. Grace, Portland, Oregon
Fig. 1. R. 'Diane' growing in the Society Test Garden at Crystal
Springs. This variety was one of the early plants imported
by George Grace.
Winter time is here again, the old year is fast drawing to a close. Two brilliant colored Chinese pheasants are strolling around the Rhododendron bushes, looking for food. The blue jays are sitting on the dogwoods. A wood pecker and some other bright colored birds staying with us, are looking for brighter days to come.
The deciduous trees have shed their leaves some time ago. The magnolias, flowering plums and cherries are awaiting the call of spring in a few more weeks, to burst forth in all their glory. One young flowering cherry has started to bloom due to the mild weather of the last two weeks.
The rhododendrons, with their background of vine maples, firs, barberry, Oregon grape, camellias and minor shrubs stand out like lovely green statues with their thousands of flower buds jauntily pointing toward heaven, awaiting the call of nature to put on one of the greatest shows on earth.
In February, usually the early blooming R. arboreum and arboreum hybrids, R. racemosum, and R. calophytum and the lovely pale yellow R. lutescens start a galaxy of display that lasts until R. auriculatum with its white trumpets finish blooming in August.
This is the time of the year for reflections on the past months, the happy incidents that transpired along the way and the sad things also which have come our way during the year. Our great president and friend, Claude Sersanous, passed away, a personal as well as a great friend of the American Rhododendron Society, Endre Ostbo, also answered the last call.
On the brighter side of the past year, the rhododendrons were never better, the shows were excellent, the weather while a little warm, was very good.
It was my good pleasure and honor to meet Dr. and Mrs. Clement G. Bowers, of Maine, New York, on stopping over in Portland for a couple of days. We visited Mr. Sersanous and his lovely garden and later along with Mr. Sersanous, spent some hours in the test gardens nearby. Next morning we drove down to the garden of our editor, Mr. Rudolph Henny. It is always a delight to see Mr. Henny's new hybrids along with the older ones. Among those new varieties that delighted Dr. Bowers was R. 'Captain Jack', a brilliant red which was in full bloom. After an appetizingly good lunch with Mr. and Mrs. Henny, we drove back to Portland, and visited the Portland Garden Club headquarters. This interesting building and grounds were of especial interest to Mrs. Bowers, who is President of the New York Woman's Garden Club. Dr. Bowers was doing research for his new book on Rhododendrons of which we are looking forward to seeing in the near future.
Among other distinguished visitors to Portland were Sir James and Lady Horlick of England and Scotland, for many years a member of parliament. It was my pleasure to meet Sir James in the early days of the Society, and later at the Esch nursery with Mr. Bob Snodgrass. Those members of the American Rhododendron Society, who have received the Royal Horticultural Society yearbook on Rhododendrons and Camellias, will remember the feature article and color pictures of Sir James' estate on the Isle of Gigha on the West coast of Scotland.
On two previous papers published in the American Rhododendron Society Bulletin, I wrote mainly on the subject of rhododendron species and hybrids. Today I should like to touch on some of the problems of a rhododendron grower and hobbyist. This is a subject on which very little is written. If space permits, I should also like to touch on the subject of importing rhododendrons.
About twenty years ago, a friend suggested that each of us purchase a two-acre tract in the hills of southwest Portland. I was immediately attracted to the woodland garden possibilities of the property. There were literally hundreds of the western dogwood, many fine clumps of vine maple which always have been a favorite, and the large fir stumps cut many years before which were quite rotten, but very suitable for rhododendrons. Younger firs were now quite abundant along with barberry, hazel, Oregon grape and a few Oregon soft maple and other minor plants.
This site had a gentle slope to the east with a fair view of Mt. Hood between the trees. Later I decided to purchase this property and plant my rhododendrons, of which I already had quite a nice collection.
One of the first problems I had was to cut many of the fir trees as these trees robbed the small rhododendrons of food and water. I don't believe a rhododendron should be planted closer than twenty feet to a fair size fir unless one has the time to daily stand with a hose to keep them watered. All one needs is to see a cultivated field or a grain seeding and see the stunted growth around or close by fir trees. My feelings are that they are poison to rhododendron plantings.
As soon as the fir trees were taken out and the rhododendrons were planted, the dogwoods began to die. Every year since, a number of them die. They seem to resent cultivation and possible artificial watering. These have been replaced with flowering crab, plums, Labernum (golden chain), Hawthorn, Cooper Beech, Catalpa (Empress tree), 'Mt. Fugi' Japanese cherry, Robina Locust, Dove tree, incense Cedars, Metasequoia, Birch and a dozen varieties of Magnolia. Most of these have developed into specimen trees over the years.
The Arctic blast in early November, 1955, took the thirty foot Dove tree, one of my most cherished plants. Magnolias, veitchii, campbelii, mollicomata, Watsoni, Wilsonii and not the least important, M. Conspicua Alba, a twenty foot bush of great beauty. Still doing well and putting on a fine show each year are Magnolias 'Rustica Rubra', Nigra', Pink stellata, 'Water Lily', Macrophylla and parviflora. Problems of a Rhododendron Hobbyist
I shall not name them in their order of importance as my problems might not be so important to others. To me the perpetual battle with weeds and vines are always at hand. If one can boast of growing things better in Western Oregon than in other parts of the country, that one thing would be bigger, better and more vigorous weeds. There are hundreds of varieties and millions of them over and about the countryside-they scatter around like swarms of locusts over the ground when the wind blows in seeding season.
Culprit number one with me would be the little wild blackberry. Look over a logged off piece of land. In a year or so the ground from which the trees were cut, is again covered with these brambles. The roots go down deep and must be dug out to be eradicated. The Himalaya type blackberries in a lesser degree, keep seeding themselves. Quack grass or Johnson grass is a tough enemy to cope with. Regardless of how careful you are if you buy balled plants, you are sure to wake up with it scattered around your garden before you realize it. Some years ago, I bought a dozen plants of dwarf Skimmia and mixed with the rhododendrons. The grower had carefully pulled the roots that could not be seen. The chain reaction of the quack grass soon spread over large areas. Another rhododendron nursery sent out labeled rhododendrons with this miserable pest. Yet this same southern state has an embargo against shipping plants with quack grass into its confines.
Canadian thistles are no respecter of persons or places. They love to mingle, with the shrubs whether it be in the lath house, green house, shade or sun, rich or poor soil, they thrive. Equally as bad are the wild morning glory. Pull them out, break them off, in a few days-see them sticking their heads out of the top of the seven foot high rhododendrons. Thimble berry, a cane berry type plant like the raspberries are hard to control.
The last I shall mention is the obnoxious chick weed, which loves to mingle with the small plants in the green house, lath house and especially shady places where the soil is fertile. This weed is a nemesis for many nurserymen.
If you say the control is very simple, you are absolutely right. Just keep all these pests hoed or dug out, mulch well and keep the beds clean like they should be. There are commercial sprays available for all these pests, just the right ones for each weed. This last summer, I bought a power sprayer and hired a good man to spray. There was a fair degree of success. In a few weeks, I noticed some roses and hardy hibiscus were beginning to die, and so decided one should not spray among the crowded plants. The directions on the container had warned against drifting spray damage.
Yes, there is no problem with weeds if one has a good gardener, to cost say between three and four dollars an hour. Some years ago, I hired a recommended gardener. After several days work, I took time to check him, and what did I see? He had built a fire to burn the trash against one of my good five foot rhododendron plants. I had a nice collection of Meconopsis (Blue Tibetan Poppy), and these had been nicely weeded out of the beds of Rhododendrons. It is purely a matter of economics and those who are financially able to afford such help, need not worry about these trifling matters!
Since becoming a rhododendron grower, it has been a very important project to break out the dead or dying trusses after the blooms are through. This is an important measure to direct the strength of the plant to the new growth and in turn to get a good crop of buds for the coming season. It also improves the looks of the plants for the next eleven months. This job requires a lot of time and work, especially large plants ten to fifteen foot high. One has to use a ladder or step ladder, sometimes I climb into the crotch of the larger limbs and pick them off from there. I have a little game of counting the dead heads on each plant as I pick them off, and it seems to go faster that way. Many plants have several hundred trusses on them. I remember, Mrs. Rosa Stevenson, wife of the late J. G. Stevenson of Tower Court, saying that she picked off most of the dead trusses on that remarkable estate each year.
Certainly a tremendous job for the gardener in western Oregon is watering during the dry season. All summers in Oregon require some watering and most summers require a great deal of watering. It requires a good well with plenty of water or to be connected with the municipal water supply. This is very costly and one can easily spend some hundreds of dollars during the dry season. Of course, the most satisfactory way is to have overhead sprinkling systems. Otherwise, it requires hoses and sprinklers on which I have to depend. Rhododendrons have a nice way of telling us when they are thirsty. When their leaves begin to curl, I get the hose set and turn the water on. One can imagine the amount of effort to water, say, an acre, during prolonged dry spells, especially if the East wind starts to blow.
Along with watering, mulching goes hand in hand. There are many good mulches, but none quite so good as the natural mulch from under the trees like fir and pine needles, oak and other deciduous leaves, dry bracken and decayed vegetable matter. The fine roots of the rhododendrons thrive on humus; falling leaves are the best method to provide it. Sawdust keeps the moisture in the soil, and the weeds down, but until broken down, does not feed the plants. For a number of years, I used cow manure, green or rotted, whichever I could get because it happened to be the easy way and not too expensive. There has been an old story that one should never use cow manure on rhododendrons, but I have the first plant yet to be lost from using cow manure.
Slugs in a woodland garden are a revolting thing. I seem to have a never-ending array of them. The more I kill with slug bait the more seem to come and what a mess in disposing of them. Nothing can make a rhododendron more unsightly than to be chewed up by strawberry weevils. These are tough imps to get rid of. Arsenic spray at the right time is a good medicine for them. Dieldrin mixed in the soil to a depth of six inches is a very effective remedy. If you have much trouble controlling, get a few bantam chickens. During the hatching season of the weevils, they will clean them up very effectively. Try them; they are extra good. Lacy Wing flies are a problem to control especially where the plants are crowded together. There can be controlled by spraying with a mixture of nicotine in the spray. The yellow rhododendrons seem to be the hardest hit by these vile pests.
People in western Oregon, particularly in the past, have had the habit of planting rhododendrons and other plants very close around their homes. Many of these were planted about two feet from the foundation. In a few years, they outgrew their usefulness, being both too tall and too close. Fortunately, landscapers are doing a much better job in the last few years, using much lower growing shrubs and planting them to fit the home design. My own experience in the last twenty years has taught me the futility of planting too many plants on a given area. These plants were originally planted in irregular patterns from four to six feet apart. These have grown from small plants up to eighteen feet tall and spread out where they crowd one another. Some plants are eventually choked out and are killed. The foot paths are crowded in a manner where they are no longer passable.
My advice is: don't over plant. Yet I probably would do the same thing again as we take the easiest way at the time, and one can always thin them out. One famous English gardener said, "Just give them a ride." If you are growing a goodly number of new seedlings where are you going to put them, Burn them, give them away, sell them or crowd them? One thing is sure, rhododendrons, after a few years bloom, owes no man anything. They pay their own way in beauty and pleasure.
How large should ones garden be? As large as one can take care of. We are living in a rapidly changing world and economy. The day of extremely large gardens are past except in rare occasions. This is a day of high wages and high taxes. The cost of maintenance of a large garden is high indeed.
Within a couple of miles of my place is the Lewis and Clark College campus, which not too many years ago, was a famous residence, with one of the best and most extensive gardens in the northwest. Between thirty and forty men were working and taking care of it. Even a financier could not stand the upkeep. Eventually, it got out of control, and later became the college campus.
It was very interesting in England while visiting there some years ago, to learn about the famous gardens of Leonardslee, Wakehurst, Aberconway's at Bodnant, Rothschild's at Exbury, Stevenson's at Tower Court, to mention a few. The cost of maintaining these gardens is large indeed. Many of the estates have been leased for hospitals and government services to help pay their way. The National Trust of England and Scotland have taken over many estates in order to preserve them for the future. It is handled in a way similar to our national park service in this country.
In the beautiful Leonardslee garden of Sir Giles Loder where the famous 'Loderi' hybrids were produced, I noticed where some of the plantings had reverted to the wild. Workmen were trimming out the growth in many areas. Some of these rhododendrons were twenty five feet high and over. The same can be said for many of the other gardens in Britain, especially the lush gardens in Cornwall.
Perhaps the best place to grow and show specimen rhododendrons is in some of the cemeteries where there is plenty of room and perpetual upkeep. Indeed, there are many splendid rhododendrons in Portland Cemeteries where they put on a great display before and on Decoration Day.
How is one going to plant large growing rhododendrons on a small plot or acre, and still have a reasonable amount of lawn and other companion plants in the right proportion? Unless one is financially able to put out the necessary cost for experienced labor and up-keep, which the average plant lover doesn't always have, he may have to adjust his garden to fit his ability to care for it. I have known a number of families who spend their weekends and their vacations working in their garden. It is lovely to look at and groomed to the last degree.
In the few years since the American Rhododendron Society gardens at Crystal Springs have been established, the plants are already crowding, and the problem of moving and thinning them out is at hand. It is no small job to dig and move these large plants to another location. Mind you, this all is on volunteer labor. The superintendent and his faithful volunteers deserve a good word for their work.
Twenty three years ago, I was visiting a nurseryman by the name of Nick Radovich. Our discussion led to the subject of new varieties of rhododendrons. Mr. Radovich showed me a catalogue of the Layritz nurseries, Victoria, British Columbia. The descriptions of the newer varieties fascinated me, so I decided then and there I was going to have some of them. I sent for a catalogue and in the meantime, contacted the Portland office of the bureau of Plant Quarantine. They advised me to send to their plant import office in New Jersey for a permit for the foreign importation of plants. In the meantime, I heard of the late Mr. Wm. Tucker who had somehow collected some of the newer rhododendrons. What a pleasure and delight to see these plants even before I had seen them in bloom. I had been told that it would be impossible to import plants, and this only made me determine that I would get them. The order was sent to Layritz nurseries, Victoria, with my permit number. The shipment arrived after going through to quarantine at Seattle, with the assistance of a broker. These plants were immediately put into a lath house, and some weeks later, a number of them bloomed. Among them was R. 'Penjerrick', a yellow form of great beauty. Among the shipment were Rhododendron 'C. B. Van Ness', 'Unknown Warrior', 'King George' (Red), 'Dr. Stocker', 'Unique', 'Earl of Athlone', 'Mrs. G. W. Leak', 'J. G. Millais', 'Butterfly', 'J. H. Van Ness', 'Loderi Pink Diamond', and 'Game Chick', 'Rubens', 'Zuider Zee', 'Rosamond Millais', 'Broughtonii Aureum', 'Ascot Brilliant', 'Beauty of Littleworth', 'Lady Bligh', 'Jean Marie Montague', 'Lady Montague', 'Gills Crimson', 'Canary', 'Mars', 'Mrs. W. C. Slocock', 'Borde Hill' and 'Mrs. A. M. Williams'.
For twelve years or more, importations were made regularly from English nurseries, and two shipments from Holland. Actually I got my money's worth, when I received these plants because it was such a joy and thrill to bloom them for the first time. Many times the plants would arrive in very bad condition and seemed dead. With the use of a pit house and some electric cable, a sweat box covered with glass, miracles were accomplished. The plants were partially buried in about ten inches of peat moss, with a constant temperature of between sixty and seventy degrees, and watered every day or so. Soon the dead branches would start new life. Most of the original plants from the first importations are still alive and putting on a great show every year.
Among the nurseries sending plants were Slocock's (Goldsworth), Woking Surrey, G. Reuthe Keston, Kent; Sunningdale Nurseries, Windlesham; John Waters Son & Crisp, Bagshot, Surrey; Knapshill nursery, Woking Surrey; Winkfield Manor; Hillier & Son, Winchester, and the Blaauw and Van Ness Nurseries of Boskoop, Holland.
While occasionally there were some poor forms and mislabeled plants sent, I have always thought they did a very commendable job in getting the plants we needed, and deserve our appreciation. There was always the risk of dock strikes over fumigations and other hindrances. The last shipment from Sunningdale about 1950, was lost due to fumigation at Hoboken, New Jersey. One large shipment ordered by John Henny and myself was lost through a prolonged dock strike in New York.
In recent years, Mr. Klaas Ellerbrook, a local nursery man has had some very successful importations from Holland by way of the Panama Canal. These were sent in cold storage via the inspection station at Seattle, Washington. The Seattle station has been very helpful in getting them to their destination as soon as possible. One case of scions sent air mail from England turned out to be only moderately successful.
I have always tried to be liberal in giving cuttings and scions to other collectors and in a good number of cases to nurserymen. Some people are rather stingy in giving out scions, but I should not criticize them. However, if one wants a new variety bad enough, he can get it somewhere. If one can help others to enjoy these remarkable plants, he is only helping himself fulfill life's obligation to try and make others happy. Most rhododendron hobbyists are a fine group of people and reciprocate a good turn. Once in a while that is not the case, however.
Regarding the problems of the rhododendron growers, I have barely touched on the more important ones. The minor ones are important to some and the important ones are minor to others. Often new members of the Society find their residence surroundings are too small for the number of plants they would like to have. The problem of finding a location suitable for a desirable residence, where water is available, the right size, slope, price, drainage, view, woodland background and numerous other items is large. Usually several of my friends are looking for such a place. One young man who has grown many of Dr. Rock's seedlings of his nineteen hundred forty eight expedition, has for several years been looking for a location for his many plants.
The problem of drainage is very important as rhododendrons will not tolerate soggy feet. Another warning; be sure and watch the field drains of a septic tank. If one is confronted with such a situation it will poison a plant before one realizes it. On the subject of weeds I have named only a few. Fertilizing rhododendrons is another important subject with many growers and nurserymen and no doubt many other things should be mentioned but will have to be dealt with another time.
Space will not permit me at this time to tell some of the high lights and experiences and of the many grand people I have met in over twenty years, of growing rhododendrons. If your editor desires, I should like to prepare a paper on "Showing Rhododendrons" in a later issue. It will be a new year when this article is in print. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and Happy Gardening.