Down The Sawdust Trail - The Student Garden
at the Rhododendron Species Foundation
Esther Avery, Tacoma, Washington
It started for me, three years ago in December 1973. We had a lot of new young members come into the Tacoma Study Club. Most were just starting their collection of species, and were not adept at proceeding with study programs under casual circumstances. There needed to be some kind of new beginning to keep the 'study' on a reasonable progression.
I offered to do a total presentation of all of the Series as a book review, and show plant material and printed information, as well as provide a month by month schedule, to get through all of the Series groups.
From a long look at all of the books available, it seemed that the most information for all of the groups, and all of the plants, under one cover, could only be found in the old Species of Rhododendron book. Also these were available as reprints to everyone.
I started the work in a routine fashion, but it soon became a smashing experience to see this information develop on diagrams. These became the Comparative Charts of Species Rhododendrons that were printed in the ARS Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, July, 1974.
But that was only the beginning. I thought that if the author provided on the introductory page of each Series, such information, then what in the world would show up on charting done from plant description, on a page to page basis?
By that time the Study Club had settled down to do the three Year Study Program, so I followed along with Comparative Charts, from the text, of the plants in each series. It has been a fascinating experience, and many of the people shared my astonishment as they developed. Two years went by of this kind of organized input in the Tacoma group. Twenty-three people came into the program to do a Series Study and then the species Foundation came to our community.
We asked, and received permission as a Study Group, to visit the grounds of the future garden. The purpose was to consider all 44 Series Groups, as a theoretical garden, under actual land and weather conditions, at a precise spot. It was an experience of a lifetime, and not one that any person privileged to attend will ever forget.
From that winter walk on December 7, 1975, I suppose, the first estimate was made of ground space needed for all the species plants, on a classic basis of one each at mature size.
The coincidence of the reprinting of the old Species of Rhododendron book and its widespread distribution, the accepted beginning of a formal three Year Study of the Species, the curiosity to make all of those botanical charts, and the Rhododendron Species Foundation move to Federal Way, all leaves me with a sense of unfathomable astonishment.
Last May 24, 1976, Mr. Robbins, on behalf of the R. S. F. Board, wrote to ask me to be in charge of putting in their two-acre Student Garden. I was stunned, and did nothing for several days. Then I called the members of the Study Club for advice. We went over and over and over, how best to do it. Many authors were acceptable, but not complete. Descriptions had to be right and readily available. We were right back to the old species book for basic information. It was an accepted text universally, it would provide authority by written word, and give a credibility that would be necessary for a botanical area. The organized species study we had been doing could be the basis for the Foundation Student garden. August 17 we had a call from Warren Berg, who is the garden chairman for the Foundation. He said the Board had accepted and OK'd the Student Garden Plan as projected.
Ken Gambrill went over the inventory and indicated all the beautiful and rare plants, to be designated and planted in that part of the Garden, a total of 550. As I typed the lists for the committee field work I kept stopping in utter wonderment. Here we have a collection of the world's choicest species being created on a permanent basis. These would be the ones we would be handling in the planting process. If you cannot feel this awe, with me, then don't bother to come to the garden.
I know it is, somehow, a very special place, not only for now but for all future time.
Well, September 2 was the time for work to begin. The people who had signed up for committee work for the Foundation at the Open House last spring were notified, and 27 people came to walk down the sawdust trail with me.
They took their charts and their plant stakes, went out into raw space, and set up a garden with 42 of the 44 Series Groups. It was magnificent to see. Not one person hesitated or refused.
Warren went at his work as if he had been laying out botanical areas all of his life. He helped everyone without stinting. He gave us all confidence with his practical knowledge and hard work.
The Student Garden is finished, now, except for some simple mosses maybe and a few more rhododendrons to be put in, and perhaps some specialized rock types. For landscape effect another 50 to 60 plants will go in, some of which will be companion trees and shrubs. The garden stands ready to grow on, and ready for some people to see and know over the years. It is a reality!
You walk out among people with your gifts. I guess for me the simple charts from an old book will be my contribution. The companionship has been wonderful and I hope the vision and love to provide for this beautiful area will always be available in plenty from the people who come to know it, and to work here.