How To Avoid Pain and Suffering With Particular
Reference To The Genus Rhododendron
By Charles P. Reuben, Westhampton Beach, N.Y.
Reprinted from The Rosebay
Most rhododendron growers, lovers and collectors more or less graduated from the less taxing items found in most gardens much as the orchid people graduate from the foliage plants which seem to decorate virtually every commercial establishment today.
Well, I skipped a lot of grades of high school and the first two years of college by accumulating in three years some three hundred hybrids and species, almost all of them small plants. In the process, I managed to make at least as many mistakes as it would take a normal person to make in thirty years. I try not to make the same mistake twice; instead, I make new ones. I'm writing this in the hope that you will be able to avoid some of my errors.
SOIL PREPARATION. Like others who can read, I dug the $5.00 hole, added the peat and sat back to wait for the big flowers we know so well. That was in the beginning, before the "insanity" set in. I really don't know how "it" took over. In any case, there are now some 100 plants improperly planted and I'm moving them. How we got from then to now may be of some interest.
I began with 17 one gallon plants from a large chain whose salesman pointed to the growth bud and exclaimed "Look at that beautiful flower bud for next spring". It was September. I raced from Patchogue to Westhampton, dug the required 17 holes, quickly put each plant in (I didn't want to break any of the roots). To insure their safety from the gods of winter I placed a full inch of soil over the crown and then mulched that with two inches of the very best peat moss.
At the time I had an apartment in New York City and was coming to Westhampton 3-4 times a week. Each time I would check my prides and joys and nothing happened till late April. Then everything happened. They began to keel over. First 'Vulcan' 7 out of 8. Then 'A. Bedford' 2 of 8. What could be wrong? I raced from garden center to garden center. One spoke directly of borers and sold me "Borer-kill". The next mumbled about worn out soil and chlorosis. He sold me "Miracid".
Then by chance on a dreary Sunday morning I saw a sign saying "Planting Fields Arboretum". I had read at one time about Mr. Coe's home and thought I might take a look. As I parked the car I saw lots of rhododendrons and looked for an office and hopefully a solution to my woes. For 35¢ (now 50¢) I received the New York Chapter's rhododendron booklet. I speed-read it in the parking lot in 15 minutes, then broke every law racing to Westhampton Beach. I tore the peat away from my suffering children with my bare hands. They began to revive and I wrote the membership application to the New York Chapter.
During the preceding months I had begun to accumulate quite a few cultivars. I had seen a yellow rhododendron in bloom and when I tried to purchase it was gone. For the next six months I made a pest of myself at I believe every garden center on Long Island. First one or two, then four or five rhododendron plants found their way into my old car. The ultimate came the day of my first plant sale. I loaded up with 17 rhododendrons and 2 azaleas. At 3 a.m. the next morning after work in New York City, I was stopped by two police cars. They demanded to know what kind of plants I had in the back seat. Ever so slowly I got out my ARS card and then began to laugh. Moral: If you do transport rhododendrons, do it in daylight.
By the end of the first season I had some 110 plants of 90 odd clones. In that year many garden centers carried gallon-sized plants of what I now know to be liners. This was a very bad mistake for two reasons: First, I have a lot of real ordinary rhododendrons. Secondly, unless one has beds properly prepared, it is impossible to plant correctly. This was coupled with the fact that I soon discovered the West Coast. (I have recently discovered a place called England and am getting the license for that). I found this out as follows: This past spring I received 167 plants from the West. As I had no place to put them, I bought 20 bags of peat and then double-dug it into a bed some 60 x 12. In reality, I had more or less a peat bed mixed with 20% of my sandy soil. I then set out most of my new plants into this bed. Some were rooted cuttings and liners. Growth had been unreal. A plant of 'Medusa' put on stem growth (and buds) of 9-10 inches. A small 'Todmorden' has run amuck. Most importantly, root development has been great and it's the root system I believe that makes borderline hardy plants capable of survival. Since I have other plants of these cultivars in other spots, I quite carefully measured their growth. My other 'Medusa' has stem growth of 4-5".
Here I had quite dramatically living proof as to my error. I am now certain that what has been published about loose friable soil with a great deal of organic matter mixed in is crucial. I called my source of these plants to see whether he had pumped them with fertilizers and he assured me he had not. Another nurseryman had told me two years before about the necessity of re-containerizing some west coast stock before setting it out. To test this I picked up some of the gallon plants and examined their root structure. In 8 out of 10 cases few roots had gone into my soil, and in one case 'Rustica Flora Pleno' in the ground some 3 years, I could have put it back into the one gallon container. I don't suggest you run out and buy the 41 bags of peat I did, but suffice it to say, the more organic material the better...which gets me to...
FERTILIZERS. No matter how well planted in the very best soil mix there is bound to be something missing. To test this I have been feeding one plant of 'Roseum Elegans' and starving another that came out of the same nursery line. They are more or less side by side. It's still too early to tell, but the hungry one is not quite as good looking in little details: stem growth, foliage color, etc. Four feet away is a R. catawbiense album (compactum) purchased at a local nursery, of the same size as the R. 'Roseum Elegans', and it is budded on every terminal. Add to this the fact that a rooted cutting of Hardgrove's 'Merry May White' made a bud less than one year after being "stuck" on one flush in the shade, and I can only conclude I again erred. This was driven home when I saw seedlings of a local nurseryman 5-8 inches long. He has been foliar feeding weekly. Since our growing season in rhododendrons anyway extends well into the fall, perhaps the caveat to end fertilizing in June is wrong. And that gets me to...
THE SUN. Byron Neff told me that he likes flowers "Big Flowers" and that he is not prepared to wait years to see some smaller plants set buds. (He detailed this in an article for this NEWSLETTER - Raising Rhododendrons In The Sun - December 1977.) As a test I moved a 3-year-old 'Scintillation' which set two buds in '77 into the sun. It has 18 now. A 'Bob Bovee' received as a 4-year-old un-budded plant, pinched and exposed has 23 buds. Similar results were obtained with the following (all less than 3 years old): 'Blue Peter', 'Harvest Moon', 'Crest', 'Cadis', 'Bacher's Gold', 'Kubla Khan', 'Tortoise Shell Wonder', 'Ben Mosely', 'Brown Eyes', 'Butterfly', 'Honey Seafoam', 'Robert Allison', and too many more for this to be an accident. In many cases I have other plants of the same clones in semi-shade or filtered sunlight. For example, another 'Scintillation' as 7 buds in 50% shade. Add to this a note from the new book "Hybrids and Hybridizers" (you can buy it from the New York Chapter) about Dexter growing things in the sun and blooming seedlings in 4 years and the note that Guy Nearing found leaves of plants grown in the sun to be some 20% thicker than those in the shade and you begin to wonder. Cape Cod, Dexter's territory is most like Long Island. The problem then may be not the summer sun but rather the winter sun when frozen ground, lack of snow cover and severe winds make things a bit unpleasant outside. Based on last year's developments, I have reached some tentative conclusions about hardiness.
HARDINESS IS WHAT GROWS FOR ME. Some of my 140 yellow and orange clones were supposed to die last year. They did rather well I thought compared to the so-called "Iron Clads", particularly those with ponticum blood in them, the 'Blue Peter', 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno' and 'Roseum', which were severely damaged in foliage. I am basing this on my observations of Planting Fields, various gardens and conversations at the National Convention. On the Eastern seaboard, the experience was universal and only West Virginia, Ohio and the Midwest had contrasting results. What I'm suggesting is that here with so many mini micro-climates, the dicta of Ben Morrison must be applied. If you think you might like a plant, buy it and try it. I wouldn't grade 'Medusa' (an H-4) for all the 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno' or 'Everestianum's in the world. What I'm suggesting is that the Iron Clads here don't have the sense to stop growing in the fall. The more tender things stop at the first little chill, and I have the plants to bear this out, which brings me to the plants themselves and where to get them.
GROWERS. Alfred Raustein has one of the finest rhododendron nurseries here, and Matt Nosal of Holly Heath Nursery has an incredible collection of azaleas. Jim Cross of Environmentals grows wonderful little things available in the more fastidious garden centers. Then too, there are the plant sales of the New York Chapter.
PINCHING. I have pinched out the growth buds of many small plants. I believe this to be wrong. It encourages twiggy growth which doesn't bud up. A much better procedure I feel is the "Baldsiefen Method" of removing one full flush, in fact one full year's growth. At that time all cuttings are placed in baggies, properly labeled and given to Frank Arsen, who will then sell them to other members at the Cutting Exchange.
As I look around my place I am often distressed to see how many sad things I bought because I thought I knew what I was doing. I really don't want to think about the money, rather the time I wasted with really inferior things. I am taking the liberty of listing a few of my choice plants.
'Nathan Hale': This is a Dorothy Schlaikjer production forced on me by Jane McKay with the "chance" comment as I passed by..."If anyone saw that in bloom they'd buy it on the spot". Well since Lady McKay is the equivalent in flowers to what Escoffier is in my business, I bought on the spot. This is the best thing that flowered this year - great big fragrant flowers on a tidy bush. Much more will be heard of this number when it gets to the West Coast.
Azalea 'Target': Another "stray from McKay". $4.00 for a 36" azalea seemed a bit cheap, so I stuck it in a corner and forgot about it - until it flowered. It started late in June, lasted for four weeks. I selfed it, crossed it with R. nakaharai Fancy, R. maximum, and R. yakushimanum Exbury. At night I would leave the car lights on to look at it. I am now going azalea crazy, something I was told would happen, but didn't believe.
'Scintillation', 'Burgundy Cherry' and 'Brown Eyes' are three plants I don't remember who I bought them from, but I definitely remember each one was given the "Betty Hager Seal of Approval". So well known, they hardly need a vote from me.
'Amazement': This is the sister to 'Golden Star'. A Royce child, but really the "Rolls" of the yellows here. Deeper yellow, more fragrant and better in habit, I have crossed it with everything save the Hicks yews, for the Seed Exchange.
'Chikor' and R. keiskei (dwarf form from Arsen Garden): These came from Jim Cross and got me interested in the little guys. The former is extremely difficult, the only scaly I have had trouble with. It is more than worth it.
As you can see, each one of these came by others, not involuntarily, I might say. In retrospect, I wish I had stocked my entire garden this way. I strongly suggest you should.