Death Of A Nursery
Dr. Alexander R. Fitzburgh, Caldwell, New Jersey
Reprinted from New York Chapter Newsletter
This is the story of a nursery, a hybridizer, his plants, the last few months of his garden, and the life and work of Guy G. Nearing. It is a story which began over one hundred years ago with the great rhododendron collections of the British Isles. Countless generations of people, among them Guy Nearing, have viewed with wonder the lushness of the foliage, and marveled at the huge built-up trusses of four to five inch flowers which graced these magnificent plants. They have long been a source of envy for those of us here in the more rigorous climate of the north eastern United States, but alternating biting cold and desert-like heat spelled sure death for any such plant tried here. Only the "Ironclads" of Anthony Waterer and a few of our native R. catawbiense hybrids were able to survive.
In the 1920's, 30's, and 40's, a few pioneers such as Charles Dexter, Joseph Gable and Guy Nearing began the long and time-consuming process of determining which species and hybrids could survive. This slow and tedious accumulation of information has formed the background knowledge which now results in the myriad of new hybrids which are appearing monthly in the A.R.S. registry and the Spring flower shows throughout the country.
From the gentler climate of our Pacific Northwest have now come the fine hybrids of Whitney and Lem, etc., many of which rival the English plants with their five inch flowers and then to twelve inch built-up truss. These are truly beautiful when mature but somewhat garish and out of proportion until the plant itself reaches a stature of six to eight feet. Even without this defect, there are precious few of these hybrids which can stand the vigorous climate of our Northeastern states.
Other equally beautiful, but hardier plants with smaller flowers were bred by Dexter and Gable, but the one man who concentrated on hardiness was Guy G. Nearing. No poisonous insecticide or fertilizer was ever used. By the trial and error of growing them in the biting cold and burning summer heat, he sorted out which were the most fitting survivors for hardiness, shapeliness, and in his own phrase the "thriftiest" plants for our gardens.
Some who visited Mr. Nearing's nursery at Ramsey, New Jersey may have been disappointed by the appearance of the crowded plants in his nursery beds. His was an experimental nursery where the natural shape of the plant was allowed to show itself. No pruning or coddling was given for appearance sake, no de-budding nor pinching for fullness was practiced. I am certain, and have proved it in my own garden, that when plants purchased from Mr. Nearing, were grown with some T. L. C., and more ideal conditions of light and space, they have reverted to fine specimens, well clad in foliage and floriferous in bloom.
The plants in Mr. Nearing's beds, however, were badly crowded in the past few years, and as a result had few branches below the three to four foot level. Once Mr. Nearing had studied and evaluated a plant, he often ignored it. For example, the Dexter derivative "Brookville", is usually known as a well-shaped plant of good foliage and growth habit, but eventually in Mr. Nearing's nursery it became a spindly eight foot single stemmed plant with two branches and only terminal growth; 'Parkers Pink' and 'Mary Belle' became rangy and open, with only a few blooms.
My point is, I think, too many gardeners have summarily judged the Nearing plants by the way they found them growing in his nursery, in the last few years. His plants further suffered in reputation by being relatively unknown. Most gardeners have seen 'Ramapo', 'Windbeam' and 'Mary Fleming' as standards in the trade at local nurseries. A few more of our rhododendron buffs may know 'Macopin', 'Rochelle', and the Guyencourts, but how many are familiar with 'Red Lion', a mid-to-late June prolific bloomer with dark red bells and fine growth habit? Or 'Mountain Flare', an early low blush pink with a four to four and a half inch flower? Or the sister seedlings of 'Rochelle', 'Gretchen', 'Mountain Glow', 'Mountain Aura', and 'Mountain Queen'?
When Guy Nearing was flooded out of his Ridgewood nursery, thirty-five years ago, he saved many plants by giving them to friends around Mountain Lakes and Ridgewood. Some of these were the results of thirty-five previous years of hybridizing experience. To start over at the age of 60 with little money, an un-cleared four acre piece of rocky northern New Jersey land, and little but his own strength and determination required more courage than most people could muster; but Guy Nearing did just that. With help from his old friend Joe Gable, he reacquired and reclaimed some of his plants, took cuttings from others, and began again. Having nothing in the way of machinery, but his knowledge of the principle of the lever, he nevertheless dug a cold pit (10' deep by 10" x 20') to shelter tender plants, raised planting beds and edged them with 200 pound boulders, built a small stone house, fashioned ten (6 x 30) cold frames, and built and perfected his Nearing Frames for propagating - all at age 60 years plus.
These modest new beginnings allowed Mr. Nearing to continue some of the hybridizing of the previous thirty years. One of the more successful crosses from those times was 'Kettledrum' x 'Dorothea' (R. decorum x R. griffithianum). The seeds from this produced an unusually fine group of hybrids including 'Gretchen', 'Rochelle', 'Mountain Aura", 'Mountain Glow' and 'Mountain Queen'. These are all large flowered 3½" to 4", mostly rose in color with a darker blotch, and extremely floriferous habit. 'Mountain Queen' is a lighter pink, white 'Mountain Aura' is a lovely blue to lavender with white star-like centers. These are hardy to at least ten to fifteen degrees. There are many other fine plants from these seedlings, which Mr. Nearing grew on, but because of difficulty in rooting or a lesser degree of hardiness, he listed them by code number only. They were collectively known as the Ridgewood hybrids because after the flood in 1946, many of them were given as small plants to Ridgewood residents who were his friends.
He began to see more hybridizing results in the late 50's and early 60's. 'Macopin', a plant similar to 'Windbeam' is dwarfer, pinker, and in my garden, the best and most reliable of Nearing's lepidotes. ("Mary Fleming', a more striking shade of yellow and salmon is quite hardy, but often loses its open blooms to early frosts). His Guyencourt series is also hardy and is marked by small very light colored flowers. 'Chesapeake' is probably the best known of these early blooming series, but 'Elam' is dwarfer, denser, and has a lovely deep rose flower early in the season. The deeply split corolla and unusual growth habit of 'Ramsey Tinsel' are making it a collectors item, its peach and cream flowers look like small stars on casual inspection.
One of his aims (beside hardiness) was extension of the blooming season. To this end he crossed his own beautiful variety of pink mucronulatum with the tender 'Bric-a-Brac' (a moupinense hybrid), and produced the early April two-inch blossoms of 'Cliff Garland', a deep pink. Much dwarfer and twiggier are the red flowers of a similar cross, 'Cliff Spangle', which blooms here in early April, but after twenty years is only one and a half feet in height. Some of the plants at the other end of the season are: 'Azonea' flowering for me in mid June with 3½" luminous pink flowers and a deeper red blotch. 'Red Lion', a cross of Tally Ho and red catawbiense, one of whose siblings blooms for me on July 17th, with a cloud of reddish orange 2" bells, well after R. maximum has faded.
Some other midseason hybrids are: 'Decalgla' - so productive of its fine white flowers that it will often set itself back if allowed to set much seed, a bonus is its reddish-brown new growth.
'Pink Globe' - with griersonianum blood, and a huge truss which belies its hardiness.
'Red Puff' - an exceptionally floriferous dwarf orange red which hugs the mulch as a young plant but eventually reaches 3½' to 5'.
'Dexanea' - from a cross of Catanea (Catalgla sister) with a white Dexter gives large white blossoms with brownish flare.
These and many others gave a full parade of bloom at Ramsey but for me the loveliest of his hybrids was 'Fabanea' - (Fabia x Catanea). The deep lustrous dark green leaves are offset by a dusting of indumentum on the buds and the new growth's flowers are a delicate shade of Turkey red in the form of a somewhat loose truss of bellshaped flowers.
Many of us who have visited his garden recognize the majority of the plants mentioned above, but some lesser known ones are:
'Signal Horn' - across of 'Atrier x 'Goldsworth Yellow', a low pink with a striking geometrical figure, a darker purple red blotch.
R. keiskei x R. spinuliferum x R. keiskei - the long tubular flower of R. spinuliferum with the color of 'Mary Fleming'.
'Mt. Opal' - a lovely luminous shade of peach and cream with fine foliage and habit.
'Golden Salmon' - the cross of 'Atrier' x 'Atrier' which some feel is his best plant, the name describes the flower well, fleshy 3½" flowers.
'Bulodes' - a frilled blush pink elepidote which blooms with dogwoods and daffodils.
Special forms of hardy species also were propagated. Both R. discolor and R. fortunei were raised true from seed to the third generation. Their 4" blossoms are a parent of many of his better hybrids. R. fortunei is further noted for its fragrance, its lovely scent was wafted to the nostrils of those visiting the garden when still twenty feet away.
'Catanea' and 'Catalgla' are sister seedlings of the white form of R. catawbiense, which figured prominently in his hybridizing program.
A hardy form of R. wardii, cream with purple throat was often crossed with R. discolor with fine results in foliage and flower.
Another hardy light yellow, R. keiskei is the parent of 'Mary Fleming' and was propagated from seed. R. racemosum too was propagated from seed to the F2 generation and the resulting plants were superior in dwarfness and cold hardiness.
A form of R. sutchuenense became a 15' tree with lavender and yellow blooms around May 26th. This is much later than the usual April bloom. His plant, although hardy, opens flowers so early that it can be counted on only one year in five for bloom, but is a very dense shrub 6" to 8'.
Orbiculare was hardy in his garden, and because or its perfect form and red bells, he speculated on it becoming the red Boule de Neige he was seeking.
R. williamsianum which he acquired from Tingle was, at maturity, a perfect mound 2½' x 2½' with delightful brownish red tips on the new growth, and buds which highlight its rounded leaves of soft green. The exotic looking R. adenopodum and R. makinoi fascinated him and often drew comments from visitors. They should be considered for the oriental garden.
These and perhaps twenty others are the creations he raised in long irregular beds at Ramsey. It became rows of a solid packed, impenetrable forest. A forest of both large and small, dense and open growing, green leaved massed plants. Mr. Nearing is now in his 90's and no longer lives in Ramsey. The house he built himself caught fire during the winter of '77-'78 and was destroyed together, and perhaps more importantly, with all his books and records of his work.
Before the fire, however, a committee of his friends had formed the "Nearing Committee', a group who hoped with the cooperation of Mr. Nearing to move his plants intact to different arboreta and garden sites so that many might enjoy their beauty for generations. The same committee also duplicated some of his records. However, Mr. Nearing was so dejected by the fire that he sold the land to a housing developer and sold off his plants one by one until winter 1978-79. Then the trees were cleared and heavy equipment leveled his house and outbuildings to the ground. A graded, but unpaved road ran through the sites where his cold frames and raised beds once produced such a fire of lovely colors every spring.
Although there was no organized or formal effort, a number of us became interested enough to purchase from Mr. Nearing, one by one, the now badly overgrown plants, and move them to our private gardens. There is an informal listing being kept of the location of some of his experimental seedlings and most of his named hybrids. The hardy gene pool he labored so hard to collect will thus survive and perhaps give us more of the beautiful hardy hybrids both he and Joseph Gable struggled for sixty years to create.
The last time I was there in Ramsey with Mr. Nearing, he was looking sadly at the raw earth of the newly graded road. There lay the uprooted remains of his hybrids, piled high, but still trying to bloom, on the dirt shoulders of the new road. Although I was saddened, I realized that my feeling of loss must be nothing to what Guy Nearing felt, looking at the demolished remains of a life's work.
We are indebted to Dr. Fitzburgh, an associate member of our chapter, for this fine article about Guy Nearing. New York Chapter members remember well the memorable January 1976 meeting when Guy Nearing honored us with his presence, on the occasion of his 86th birthday.