The Cecil and Molly Smith Garden
Adapted from article published in the Summer 1994 issue of Pacific Horticulture
For those with a love for the woodland garden in the truest sense of the word, there exists the most magical of places in the northern reaches of the Willamette Valley near the town of Newberg, Oregon. This place is the Cecil and Molly Smith Garden. Those aware of its unique attributes and burgeoning reputation in the world of horticulture are drawn again and again to its special charms.
Tucked away on a scant five acres of north sloping ground with a primary cover of second growth Douglas fir, this parcel was a natural attraction for the man who lived but a few miles east of here as a young man. In his youth, Cecil was first enamored of the native flora (trillium, erythronium, dodecatheon, etc.) which grew in the woods around him. When he reached manhood, married and fell in love with the genus Rhododendron, he looked for a spot that would accommodate his captivation with this genus, in tandem with his beloved natives. He fell immediately upon this spot.1
One of the chief advantages of this site was its cover of second growth Douglas fir which offered protection from intense summer sun during the day and radiation at night in winter; it also facilitated the movement of cold air to the valley floor. With a range of small mountains to the east blocking severely cold winds periodically blowing out of the Columbia River Gorge, and the presence of a deep forest duff above a good native soil, Cecil found the ideal place for situating a rhododendron garden.
Erecting the house on the south side of the property above the north facing slope, Cecil began the process of establishing access paths in a traverse from the house to the lower portion of the property. Old and decaying logs and stumps were carefully retained. Some became accents in their own right while others became the home of R. proteoides, Kalmiopsis leachiana, Vaccinium, Vitis idea and other carefully selected miniatures.
| R. barbatum
Photo by Peter Kendall
Although he was drawn first to the grafted hybrid rhododendrons, Cecil came to appreciate even more the various species rhododendrons to which he was introduced. These ranged from the exquisite R. proteoides to the magnificent large leaved species of which his favorite was R. falconeri. In pruning he often treated these larger rhododendrons as trees, exposing their handsome, sometimes exfoliating bark. An additional feature that attracted him was their intriguing indumentum and equally fascinating tomentum.
| R. proteoides
Photo by Peter Kendall
Rhododendron yakushimanum came to Cecil's attention early on as a plant that, besides its innate beauty, was easy to grow and imparted remarkable characteristics to its progeny. Cecil performed a good deal of hybridization with this plant almost from the beginning; two of his most outstanding crosses were 'Noyo Brave' ('Noyo Chief x R. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada') and 'Cinnamon Bear' (R. bureavii x R. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada').
In placing rhododendrons in his garden Cecil had three major concerns. First was the amount of sun or shade he deemed most advantageous in each circumstance; this led him to place some of the larger leaved species in the lower part of the garden where they received the most overhead protection. Water was the second consideration. Given the fact that this part of the Willamette Valley received the bulk of its 40-inch rainfall from October through May, irrigation was necessary during the dry period from June through September. Cecil was careful not to overwater and to rein back on watering toward the end of this period to allow the plants to harden off for winter and to diminish the number of weeds with which one had to contend. A third major consideration was addressing the plants' nutritional needs. Cecil found that, by and large, very little was needed in the way of fertilizer, especially with the species, if the plants were situated in considerable duff and their roots were covered with decaying leaves and broken branches. This afforded good moisture retention with comparably good air circulation.
Primarily a rhododendron garden, the Smith Garden goes far beyond this emphasis. As mentioned earlier, Cecil's love of the native flora was carried to the selection of this particular site as one which would foster the development of studiously chosen natives as a fitting accompaniment to his beloved rhododendrons. Douglas fir and big leaf maple provided the overstory below which a number of handsome native deciduous trees (Pacific dogwood, vine maple, ocean spray, Indian plum, elderberry, etc.) flourished. In addition to their aesthetic appeal, these trees contributed to the amassing of a low pH litter ideal for rhododendrons and their companion plants. They also provided fruit and flowers appealing to wildlife, notably birds, which brought an added dimension to the garden. Many native shrubs (salal, snowberry, wild currant, etc.) as well as herbaceous material (wild ginger, inside-out flower, checker lily, wind flower, vanilla leaf, shooting star, etc.) rounded out the list of familiar native plants. Native ferns such as licorice fern, deer fern and maidenhair fern were an added bonus.
Beyond the indigenous material, Cecil installed meticulously chosen exotics that would thrive with the natives and further embellish the garden scene. Trees such as Acer griseum (the peeling bark maple), Prunus serrula (the satin bark cherry), special birches, magnolias, the Styrax group and Hamamelis mollis (the Chinese witch hazel) were prominent. Add to these countless herbaceous perennials such as trilliums, erythroniums and cyclamens plus several interesting ferns and you had the epitome of the woodland garden.
| Cyclamen coum
Photo by Peter Kendall
In 1984, after more than 30 years of lovingly caring for the garden, Cecil reached the point where he could no longer give the garden the attention it demanded. The Portland Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society found itself in a position to acquire the garden and, with the help of the Willamette, Yamhill County, and Tualatin Valley chapters of the ARS, to assume its care and management. The work is supported in part by admission fees and sales of rhododendrons, alpines and native plants propagated by volunteers at the garden.
1 The Cecil and Molly Smith Garden is located in USDA Zone 8.