A Cold Country Garden
H. Lincoln Foster, Falls Village, Conn.
The northwest corner of Connecticut at about 900 feet above sea level can hardly be thought of as rhododendron country. The continental type climate, the winter temperatures sometimes reaching -30° F, and for extended periods in summer above 80° day and night, is not precisely Yunnan or Yakushima, or the Blue Ridge. But this is where I live and I have a long-standing love affair with rhododendrons. I do, I must confess, have my passionate attachments to alpines and primroses and wildflowers, but I come back to the Ericaceae like a fickle teenager to his first high school girl, the rhododendron.
Our garden here, called Millstream, slopes and slants along the tumble of Deming Brook that comes down off Canaan Mountain that lies to the north and east. We tilt to the south and west with the mountain behind us forming a welcome wind barrier and the valley below a basin into which the coldest air spills down: good air drainage without fierce winds; for this feature we are very thankful.
We perch on the contact between the ancient metamorphosed limestone known as Stockbridge Marble, and the Canaan Mountain schist. These two form the basement bedrock but the last glacier certainly mixed up the surface and the human activities that have gone on here for close to 200 years have further confused the geology. The soil for the most part, between the jumble of surface and buried rocks, is a stony sandy loam, in some places with a really high pH and nowhere really acid. Even in the higher reaches there are erratic boulders of weathered limestone exposed and most digging turns up a medley of rocks of various origins deposited by glacial movement and the last melt waters of the ice sheet.
When we came here about 25 years ago from Norfolk on the more strictly acid and certainly colder other side of Canaan Mountain we brought a few rhododendrons with us, some R. maximum and carolinianum, some young un-flowered seedlings of 'Dexter hybrids' and a collection of dwarf alpine rhododendrons that some years before I had purchased from Elsie Frye of Seattle to try in my rock gardening. Many others I left behind in the Great Mountain preserve where I had been working as forestry assistant. and horticultural experimenter.
Those were the days before the Rhododendron Society and I had not even heard of Guy Nearing and Joe Gable. There were in the Norfolk area some estate plantings of R. maximum, carolinianum, and calendulaceum that had been collected and imported from the southern Appalachians. And I do remember finding in a swampy woodland a couple of self-sown R. japonicum that must have escaped from a landscape planting. The native species there were R. roseum and R. viscosum. Because the R. maximum and carolinianum were beginning to naturalize by self-sowing, I became intrigued.
We were raising trees for plantation experiments on the Great Mountain Forest and I used to order from Schumacher. In his copious seed list, besides the trees, he offered various rhododendrons. I ordered such things as 'English Blend.' And I did collect seed from the established rhododendron plants and even played around with a little crossing. Through the American Rock Garden Society, which I had joined because of my excited interest in cold tolerant, high-country plants, I began to be aware of nursery sources for some of the dwarf species of rhododendron and other choice shrubby companions. It is very hard to remember the early stages of one's education. The highlights are easier to recollect.
Forestry trips had side glimpses of R. arborescens and canadense, with seedling collections. There was a visit to Sam Everitt's in Huntington, Long Island at a season when his R. kaempferi and Dexter Hybrids were in bloom. The sight of the spectacular sweeps of azaleas and rhododendrons at Sam Everett's in that rolling dell beneath old, high-trimmed oaks set a spark in ready tinder. Then a soon after visit to Dr. Hardgrove in that wonderful small maze among the trees in the sandy soil behind his house in Baldwin, Long Island blew that spark into flame, only slightly dampened by discovering how little I knew and how much there was to learn. Don's erudition on the species and hybrids was staggering. I did know enough to realize that the climate of Long Island, especially on the south shore, was much milder than ours in northwest Connecticut, but I did get up courage to write to Mr. Everitt to ask for a few seeds of his rhododendrons and azaleas. He generously sent a fat packet of each.
The seedlings came along well, and after a first winter in a deep frame were lined out in beds on an east slope beneath tall white pines. Only a few suffered winter damage by bark splitting. But it was many years before the Dexter rhododendrons proved themselves one way or another about flower-bud hardiness. Most of them, plus other rhododendrons and azaleas were gradually set out in a permanent planting in Norfolk in an abandoned hay field of about two acres, which was beginning to come in to blueberry and mountain laurel. Soon after this area on a gentle slope facing north and east was fully planted, I left Norfolk and moved over Canaan Mountain. I took with me onto this less severe southwest slope a few surplus 'Dexters' and a sampling of the few azalea crosses I had made. It was, however, a few years before I got a proper area prepared for them and the others which I purchased or grew from seed.
I had gone back into teaching at the regional high school and it was only during holidays that I could spend much time garden-making. It did not take long to discover that most of the rhododendrons set in a small pine grove near the house, where the soil, though improved with generous additions of pine duff, was a limey clay loam, soon showed signs of distress. I did begin to open the fringes of the woods across the stream and up the slope. And there, on the lower slopes of a side dell, I moved the suffering plants from near the house. Their roots had shrunk back, eating up as it were the ball that they had been brought with. Most fine feeding roots had shriveled away and a woody skeleton held the plants erect. Once moved, however, they all began to revive.
The recovery of these plants encouraged me to suppose that across the stream and up in the woods was the place for rhododendrons and azaleas and other acid soil plants. My free time had been largely devoted to developing for a rock garden the open sweeps from the back of the house, across a poverty-stricken lawn and up to where on both sides of the stream the forest had marched in.
I might have moved straight up the stream where it rushed down through a rather steep sided valley. And sometimes I regret that I didn't move in that direction. But as it was right against our property line instead I moved across the stream and up into a side drainage which centuries ago may have been the main stream course. Beyond and above this enclosed hollow lay a more gently sloping wooded area, once, I suppose, an open pasture because of the "wolf" pines and old sugar maples and two lines of stone walls. Now it was a dense woodland. There were a few young oaks, scattered old sugar maples, some dense stands of poplar, a few groves of white pine, and a mish-mash of sprout growth, shrub and tree only to be identified one by one as we crept outward.
The side dell was the first to be cleared. Here I left a scattering of large white pines trimmed high to expose the rugged trunks for a sense of age and stability. A number of spindly paper birch soon responded to being released and now form a pleasant light canopy and a startling pattern with their gleaming trunks. The south facing slope was set with a variety of azaleas, species such as R. calendulaceum, roseum, viscosum, atlanticum, albrechtii, kaempferi and hybrids that I had formerly made among some of the species. A few Exburys have been added. The soil is light and well drained which meant that the young plants I set out were slow to grow together. This necessitated a few years of weeding tree sprouts. Along the paths, one across the ridge and one at the foot of the slope, I planted massed heathers, low evergreen azaleas and ground covers; trailing arbutus, partridge berry, wintergreen, bearberry, plus Trilliums and Erythroniums. Some of the dwarf rhododendrons are also along the lower path, but they have not done so well facing the sun as on the opposite north slope.
This north slope of the dell, with a path along the upper edge of its shoulder has from the beginning been a far more favorable site. The framework planting on the slope below the path and above it onto the flat area beyond is chiefly of large leaved rhododendrons and a scattering of mountain laurel that has appeared since clearing the forest growth. On both sides of this upper path ground covering and dwarf plants have found an ideal situation. In fact the soil and exposure are so good that I am constantly trying to squeeze in more and more rare and difficult plants as I acquire them. Trailing arbutus makes great mats that have to be restrained and even self sows into the path. Shortia galacifolia, when not too heavily browsed by deer, forms big clumps, flowers well and has also self-sown. Galax blooms in mid-summer above the carpets of large shiny evergreen foliage which colors richly in the fall. Here also are Kalmiopsis, Schizocodon, Gaultheria, three species of Ledum, Kalmia polifolia, Phyllodoce and Cassiope. On this slope dwarf rhododendrons thrive, but tend to get a bit leggy and bloom less freely then in the sunnier heath area developed later on the flattish area above. Running among and beneath these plants along the part are three species of Lycopodium and flat sheets of partridge berry that were here as natives.
One up-keep problem in this area is weeding out volunteer seedlings of large leaved rhododendrons, Kalmia and azalea, especially R. schlippenbachii. I suppose one feature of this north-facing slope that makes it so successful is the fact that whatever snow we have tends to lie late here and melt away slowly in the spring.
As both sides of this dell filled with planting, with the moist bottom reserved for primroses, I began clearing new areas on the more gently sloping wooded regions above and to the southeast of the dell. These areas are now rapidly filling up in turn and we continue to expand to make room for new seedlings. But that is another story for another time.