Harms Rhododendron Garden
The lower level of the old garden.
Mr. H. Harms of Portland, Oregon, a founder member of the American Rhododendron Society yearly greets thousands of visitors at his garden during the Spring and Summer when camellias and later azaleas and rhododendrons are in bloom. The first rhododendrons were planted just south of the home in 1931, and consisted of less than a dozen plants. In 1934 a newly imported group of plants including such varieties as 'Earl of Athlone', 'Lady Stuart of Wortley' and 'Loderi' were grouped near the original planting. Since that time many hundreds of species and hybrids have been added.
From the first the plants grew remarkably well and very easily, with no special care or cultural practices employed. Possibly this first success coupled with an inordinate love of flowering evergreens, induced Mr. Harms to further extend his garden to its present five acres.
The garden is situated on a steep North slope that is naturally terraced and interspersed with steep rocky points. Through the years the entire layout has retained the naturalistic atmosphere of a woodland garden.
The soils are acid, as are most of the Willamette Valley, and is composed of mainly sand, sharp gravel and even rock. Aside from the numerous outcroppings of solid rock formations, every square foot is adaptable to the growing of rhododendron.
Drainage is ideal, for on each level there is only a few dozen feet at most before the downward course of the terrain again breaks steeper than before.
Foot paths wind through the rhododendrons and zigzag back and forth where grades are steep and sharp. Many of the visitors who enjoy the sight of the garden at blooming time delight in looking up from the lowest point at the huge stage of color. I have always especially enjoyed the view from just North of the Cool house for camellias. This view is downward and the entire level of the old garden is visible from this point, with each plant plainly in view.
A few years ago the new section of the garden was added. Here the terrain falls much more rapidly than on the upper level, and the foot paths traverse in a more East-West direction for easy descent. Some of the fir trees Pseudo tsuga douglassi and Maple Acer grande were removed where they were too thick. Here, on the lowest levels of the garden the soil is sandy to the very edge of Johnston Creek, the North boundary of the garden.
In one of the natural depressions at the edge of the creek, a pool has been formed, and the water level is maintained by the height of the water in the creek. A principal path is extended by a foot bridge across the pool. The new planting of rhododendrons at the waters edge of this pool will be most pleasing when they reach maturity.
When this lower level was opened it was found that many spots were swampy and marshy and seepage would be excessive. Shallow tiling was installed even though the section was barely a foot higher than the normal water level of the creek.
Since most of the old garden was on a hillside, the addition of the new garden still lower and to the North made this location particularly desirable. Trees on the upper level though far from large or mature, provide ample shade for the entire lower new garden. Subsequently most of the trees were removed from the entire lower level and the rhododendrons are planted in an almost open location.
During the years of development of the old garden on the upper level, many fine species have matured. One particular plant obtained from the Barto collection is now nearly ten feet high and twelve feet in diameter, and is always covered with fine seven lobed, fragrant pink bloom. What the species actually is, has never been determined. That it belongs to the R. fortunei series is un-debatable but as all the records of this plant were lost at the Barto nursery even before it was purchased it has never been absolutely classified.
One other fine plant on the lower levels of the old garden was also purchased from Mr. Barto. This plant has fine, large dark green rugulose leaves, covered with a brilliant indumentum. Rhododendron enthusiasts were unanimous in classifying it as R. arboreum. Though this plant had never bloomed in its early years it soon assumed the proportions of a small tree. Several years ago the first bloom, showed the possibility of a hybrid. That the above mentioned R. fortunei could also be a hybrid is not hard to understand, for much of the seed obtained by Barto was sent him by hybridizers. Neither plant has been classified but both are in fine foliage and bloom.
Harsh, raw, East winds blowing down the Columbia gorge in the early Spring damaged bloom and foliage for several years in the early history of the old garden. About ten years ago a hedge of Arbor vitae was set out on the East boundary of the old garden. These plants are now over twenty feet high though many were of good size when planted, and form a solid wall.
Against this windbreak, many of the largest plants in the garden are growing in apparent security for the foliage on even the large leaved species is perfect and unharmed. R. sutchuenense and var. geraldii are two particularly fine plants, as are R. calophytum and several R. decorum. Nearby is R. falconeri, which will bloom for the first time this Spring. Growing about are many plants in the R. thomsonii group, along with R. wardii that blooms but sparingly in what is an ideal location for all the other rhododendron.
On the same level, but slightly more West is a fine group of R. neriiflorum growing amongst large rock. Two plants of R. spinuliferum are much admired in the Spring when the first bloom appears.
It would indeed be a delight to write about each plant, its history, and peculiarities for Mr. Harms does relate many in showing friends about, but the almost condensed nature of this writing must preclude such a desire.
R. 'Loderi', one of the very finest in the old garden is in the extreme South western portion, next to the large camellias. This plant is now nearly seven feet tall and ten feet through. I remember some years ago seeing it in bloom for the first time, but as the plant grows with the years all its beauty is retained and some added each year by additional trusses of large flowers. It is probably one of the finest R. 'Loderi' varieties in the country today. When other varieties of R. 'Loderi' bloom in the garden, some show larger bloom and deeper coloring, but none can rival the magnificence of this mature plant. I think it is one of Mr. Harm's favorite plants.
I must mention another group of striking plants from the Barto collection. These particular plants, three in all, have always been referred to as the "Barto Azors" and are planted just below the greenhouse on the steep ledge. All of these plants are late blooming even later than the R. 'Azor' and are very nearly identical with one another, but they surely are not the same parentage as R. 'Azor' (R. griersonianum x R. discolor). Several plants taken from the same group of seedlings in the nursery are also growing in Eugene, Oregon, where they are greatly admired, and one particularly fine form has been named.
Many other hybrids, imported from Holland, Great Britain and Canada are attaining large proportions, and all are the finest obtainable varieties. I will mention just two of these, R. 'Diane', a very fine large yellow imported from England in 1940 and now nearly six feet tall and R. 'Penjerrick'. (This plant has been uninjured by the cold weather, 1949.)
The new section of the garden, though at present not as mature, will be more outstanding than the upper old garden, due to the ideal natural setting. The creek that brushes the very edge of some plants on the lowest flat section is being planted with fine species and hybrids. The large R. fictolacteum and R. auriculatum are particularly effective near the water, and should do very well in the uniform shade. Groups of hybrids are set in many different locations usually in groups of three or five.
During the heavy runoff last Spring the Columbia River overflowed and backed water into Johnston creek. Many plants were awash for several days and a few were recovered some distance downstream. None of the plants were damaged by being submerged, and Mr. Harms does not anticipate a repetition for at least fifty years.
As previously stated, just a very few plants have been mentioned, though 1 now recall some very interesting data on another group of rhododendrons as related by Mr. Harms and will write on them sometime in the future.