Letting Go: A Gardener's Goodbye
Clarence "Slim" Barrett
Reprinted from the April 1994 issue of the Rhododendron Species Foundation newsletter
Picture this: Fifty acres in the Coast Range mountains about half way between Eugene and Florence, Ore. Thirty-five acres is relatively steep and covered with a beautiful stand of Douglas fir, almost a million board feet of standing timber, interspersed with wild huckleberries, wild blackberries, salal, sword fern and a few struggling Rhododendron macrophyllum that are about to lose in their fight with the dense canopy.
In the gently sloping valley below the timbered hillsides are two creeks that come together just below a crashing natural waterfall. Along the banks of the streams and over the entire valley through which they flow, nature has over eons of time deposited some 4 feet of sandy loam, above perhaps three feet of coarse gravel, thus providing excellent drainage. The top 6 to 12 inches of loam contains a rich compost of rotted fir needles, alder and maple leaves and sword fern fronds.
Along the banks of the streams are many overhanging maidenhair ferns, and the "piggy-back" plants featured in many garden stores are so abundant they sometimes become like weeds. Mossy boulders, some 3 and 4 feet in diameter, line the stream beds and create the rushing water sound that campers often drive many miles to experience.
A little above the floor of the valley, overlooking the streams and within hearing of the water sounds, stands a rustic home, showing a face of cedar boards and bats, interrupted here and there by generous viewing windows and roofed with split cedar shakes. A massive stone chimney rising above the roof with a thin wisp of white curling forth reveals the heat source within. A deck cantilevered along the front of the house shows the promise of cool summer evening breezes.
The valley below the house contains about 50 large fir trees, most over 100 feet tall, the lower limbs having been removed to a height of about 60 feet. Over a period of 20 some years, three acres have been cleared of alder trees and brush and planted to rhododendrons and other decorative plants - hundreds of them. No soil amendments or fertilizers have been required since the natural soil conditions have been ideal for rhododendron culture. A plant placed in the ground almost anyplace has luxuriated, the only help required being to keep the surrounding jungle of fern, salal, blackberry and huckleberry at bay - no small task. Some 1,500 rhododendrons are growing there, some 15 feet tall and as wide, representing over 600 different varieties, about half species and half hybrids. They bloom from late January until July, and at times the perfume of the 12-foot Loderi's is almost beyond belief. A couple of years ago a 29-year-old R. rex bloomed for the first time.
An underground irrigation system fed by a 10-horse electric pump provides abundant relief from rare periods of drought. Ironically, R. barbatum, R. calophytum and a few others placed high on a slope, beyond the reach of the irrigation system, seem to flourish with only a bit of leaf curling during the dry periods. They are truly naturalized. Their roots are shielded by overhanging bracken fern whose fronds often exceed 4 feet in length. Their magnificent display so early in the spring and in such an unexpected location is indeed spectacular.
Now consider this: The garden is located 35 miles from Florence, Ore., and 35 miles from Eugene, about 5 of these latter miles being a narrow, graveled logging road. A more acceptable route to Eugene is paved in its entirety but is 50 miles instead of 35. An offer to donate the garden to the Eugene Chapter of the ARS produced interest but rejection - the distance was too great. Keep in mind that the Cecil Smith Garden was purchased from Cecil and Molly Smith by the Portland Chapter of the ARS for a modest price and that it is about the same distance from Portland as this garden is from Eugene, yet members of the Portland Chapter regularly contribute their time and effort to the maintenance of that garden in spite of the distance involved.
A tentative offer communicated to an official of the Rhododendron Species Foundation to donate the garden as a satellite Foundation garden brought the objection of maintenance expense, understandably, together with a renewal of the long-standing debate over whether the Foundation should establish and maintain a series of gardens about the country or concentrate its entire effort into a single garden. The single garden concept, of course, is by far the more pragmatic but offers little to those rhododendron lovers who live at a great distance from the northwest Washington area and lack the time and funds to regularly visit Federal Way.
Now factor in the human element: I have three natural children, two adopted children and five step children and not a one has any appreciable interest in gardening. Oh, one stepson is somewhat interested but is so busy attending college in preparation for a career I don't think he would ever want to take on gardening on the scale involved here.
I get tired quickly anymore. A few short years ago I thought nothing of working a full 8-hour day, and I mean really working hard. Sometimes when I was into an interesting project, such as an extension of the garden or construction of a new bridge or building a rock garden, I might put in a 10- or 11-hour day and be tired but not exhausted. It was exhilarating to be outside in the clean air, working the soil or moving boulders or bridge timbers, hearing the sounds of nature. But the past few years I've worked a couple of hours in the morning and then needed a nap after lunch. A couple more hours in the afternoon and I was thoroughly pooped. Recognize those symptoms, anyone?
My wife, Elaine, has been director of the Lane County Retired Senior Volunteer Program for many years, and while she hoped to continue in this position until retirement she was getting darned tired of commuting 70 plus miles a day, especially when the roads were icy or it was pouring rain and particularly so over the 5-mile stretch of graveled logging road where she frequently met loaded log trucks and often witnessed the aftermath of serious traffic accidents.
And avarice: You will remember that a couple of years ago the environmentalists got serious about protecting our forests from further decimation and preserving great areas of forest land for the spotted owl and other threatened species of wildlife. This, of course, made privately owned stands of timber very desirable to the lumber mills. One Sunday I saw an ad in our local newspaper that announced that a certain real estate agent had clients interested in purchasing privately owned timberland. Impulsively I called the real estate agent and quoted a price for our place that I knew was totally out of reason, even considering the escalating prices of logs. Surprisingly, he seemed interested and made an appointment to show the property. Two days later I had a cash offer equal to my asking price.
We had not considered selling the place before, and this development opened a lot of possibilities. My wife had recently inherited a 5½-acre tract of land on a hill overlooking the cities of Eugene and Springfield as well as the entire Willamette and McKenzie valleys, with the Sisters mountains in the distant background. The land has a gentle slope to the east and is protected from prevailing weather by a large cluster of fir trees in the highest corner. We decided to accept the offer on the 50 acres and build a new house and garden on the 5½-acre tract. Our acceptance was conditioned on our right to remove selected plants from the old place and to have until the rainy fall season to move them.
One of the new owners had indicated an interest in moving his family to the home on the property, and the father and mother of another visited the garden more than once, exclaiming over its beauty and the desirability of preserving it. We recognized that the main reason the place sold so readily was the beautiful timber, but we specified in the terms of sale that the 50 fir trees in the garden were not to be harvested, not only because of the natural beauty they added to the garden but because of the protection they offered the rhododendrons as well.
All this transpired in the spring of 1993, and the 35 acres of fir trees have since been clear-cut and hauled off to the mill. Meanwhile no one is living in the home and nothing has been done to preserve and maintain the old garden. Not once was it watered last summer, even during periods of severe drought, but in that climate and location the established plants will survive. Already wild blackberry is invading, and soon it will take over if not controlled. We have moved about 500 rhododendrons to our new home, a few 10 to 12 feet tall but most under 5 feet and a great majority only a foot or so.
Since we are not served by a public water supply it was necessary to drill a well. We have drilled four of them and finally developed one that provides about 12 gallons a minute. The history of this hill's water supply has not been favorable, so we have installed a 12,000 gallon storage tank for emergency use. In the process of excavating the hillside in preparation for building our new home they discovered bedrock and had to drill and blast huge quantities or rock. Many boulders are as big as pianos, and there are lots of smaller ones. I am looking forward to building a very large rock garden. It's good to have most of the plants to start with, but I hope to acquire many more from the Rhododendron Species Foundation plant sales. Now, if only I can develop some semblance of stamina to undertake this project.
In October we moved into our new home near Eugene. Now in the evening I sit in this very spacious, air-conditioned house with a heat pump and electric furnace, with a gas fireplace and imitation logs, looking out at the lights of the city below me. The distant roar of traffic is inescapable, day or night. How I miss the sound of rushing water below our deck! I think of the 15-foot R. 'Susan' that I moved to the valley in a gallon can so many years ago. How magnificently it has performed over the years, while asking nothing in return but the removal of brambles. And I think of the R. fictolacteum I raised from seed given me by Milton Walker 25 years ago, its leaves densely packed with a fawn indumentum.
I miss the tumbling waterfall that provided so well for the tender R. barbatum that luxuriated in its mist. I think of the seven Loderi's with trunks 6 inches in diameter and the show of color and perfume they will present next spring - if anyone is there to see and smell them. I miss the island where the stream divided for 100 feet or so and then came back together, all on its own and without any encouragement from me. I remember falling a huge, curved fir tree and splitting it in half with a chain saw to fashion an arched bridge across to the island and covering the island with tiny R. yakushimanum and its hybrids, since grown to intertwine one with the other.
Ah, memories. But we move on. Life continues and we move with it. If we can develop a sufficient watering system we will yet have a beautiful and enviable garden. And really it is the building of it that is most rewarding. But I will always remember the many old friends I left standing beneath the firs in a little valley in the Coast Range about half way between Eugene and Florence.
Slim Barrett wrote about his garden in the Oregon Coast Range in the Spring 1991 issue of the Journal.