Logo for the Journal American Rhododendron Society

Journal American Rhododendron Society

Current Editor:
Dr. Glen Jamieson ars.editor@gmail.com


Volume 55, Number 1
Winter 2001

DLA Ejournal Home | JARS Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JARS and other ejournals

Nearly Perfect: Earl Sommerville's Native Azalea Garden
Roger Duvall
Atlanta, Georgia

You don't notice it right away. The first thing you notice about Earl Sommerville's garden is the color - the camellias in February, the azaleas and rhododendrons from March through July. Then you notice the vigor of the plants, the spotless leaves, the turgid new growth, the multitude of stems on many of the natives. Only then do you realize that you have been walking for half an hour and you haven't seen a single weed. About this time, you realize that Earl does not do things half way.

This nearly perfect garden is situated at the foot of Little Kennesaw Mountain, just next to Kennesaw Mountain, where a bloody Civil War battle, prelude to the siege of Atlanta, was fought. Earl's two acres lie less than 1,000 feet from the Kennesaw National Battlefield Park. Little Kennesaw is clearly visible over the 'George Lindley Tabor' azaleas at the back of the garden, a beautiful example of borrowed landscape.

This is primarily an azalea garden, but it includes fifty or sixty rhododendrons. Earl is quick to say that his rhododendrons cannot hold a candle to those he saw on Cape Cod during the 2000 ARS Annual Convention. Though he grows a number of hybrids, the Roseums do best - 'Roseum Elegans', 'English Roseum', 'Maximum Roseum' (synonym of 'Ponticum Roseum'). He also has good luck with some of the species: Rhododendron fortunei, R. minus var. chapmanii, which is native to the Florida panhandle, and R. minus. 'Lady Bligh' is another hybrid that does well in the Atlanta climate, but is not as well known, or as readily available, as the Roseums.

The garden includes around 3,000 evergreen azaleas, most of them planted in beds where several of the same variety are grown in mass. Earl prefers the Robin Hills, Southern Indicas (particularly 'George Lindley Tabor'), the Girard hybrids and Back Acre hybrids. And speaking of back achers, Earl sprays the azaleas every week for about six weeks beginning when they first start to show color. This is primarily to prevent petal blight and lace bug infestation. The evergreens are pruned annually, to knock off the vertical shoots, but they are allowed to grow together, forming unbroken expanses of gently curving green. The plants are well cared for and produce plenty of foliage; as a result, they are an asset to the garden even when they are not blooming. This is not always the case in Atlanta where azaleas will drop leaves and produce sparse new growth if they are not well watered and properly fertilized. Earl warns, however, not to over fertilize the evergreens.

R. austrinum
R. austrinum
Photo by Earl Sommerville
 
open pollinated seedling
open pollinated seedling
Photo by Earl Sommerville

As a gardener, Earl's first love is his native azaleas and he wants everyone to grow them. They have held up well through the heat and drought of recent years, and even if they drop their leaves they will come back next spring undaunted. There are about 1,000 native azaleas in the garden. Some are relatively pure species, some named hybrids, but most are natural hybrids and their seedlings. Georgia boasts twelve native species, many of them growing in the same region and blooming at the same time. This has created a wealth of natural hybrids. According to Earl, you can hardly find a pure species azalea in Georgia, but he sees this as a virtue, the cross fertilization having produced plants of exceptional vigor and unique beauty.

R. prunifolium
R. prunifolium
Photo by Earl Sommerville
 
R. flammeum
R. flammeum
Photo by Earl Sommerville

Gardeners with a special interest in the genus Rhododendron or in native plants have been growing native azaleas in Georgia for years, but only recently have they become easily available in the large retail nurseries. Earl's advice on growing these plants successfully is to give them plenty of sun and lots of fertilizer. He prunes when it is required, usually cutting the center stems out to keep them from getting too tall. This also promotes vigorous growth at ground level. The resulting multi-stemmed plants can survive the loss of several stems. Cuttings taken from new stems are also easier to root. Earl prefers to put his natives in the ground in October. He mixes two tablespoons of slow release fertilizer and three or four tablespoons of pelletized lime into the planting medium. Earl has his soil analyzed every two of three years, and when it becomes too acidic, he treats the garden with palletized lime. He has seen the pH as low as 3.9. Native azaleas do best with a pH about 5.6, but never above 6.0. When the pH was too low, Earl's azaleas responded to lime "like it was fertilizer."

R. canescens
R. canescens
Photo by Earl Sommerville
 
R. viscosum
R. viscosum
Photo by Earl Sommerville

Earl is especially interested in breeding native azaleas with ball truss blooms. To those who argue that ball trusses are the result of culture rather than genetics, Earl answers, "If fertilizer and sun produced ball trusses, all of mine would have them." He insists that there is a strong element of genetics in the formation of ball trusses and collects for this feature. There is no arguing with the fact that he has many ball truss azaleas that would stand out in any garden.

Persian carpet makers are said to introduce a "mistake" intentionally into their best carpets because only God is perfect. Maybe that explains the shoulder- high poke weed rising above the 'Martha Hitchcock' azaleas and near one of the Franklinia trees. Earl's neighbors call his garden "Paradise," and maybe a garden like this one is as close as we get.

Roger Duvall has been a member of the Azalea Chapter since 1988. He is webmaster for the Azalea Chapter home page on the Internet.


Volume 55, Number 1
Winter 2001

DLA Ejournal Home | JARS Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JARS and other ejournals