Early Spring in the Test Garden
Ruth M. Hansen
On the morning of February 22nd we began our spring work in the Test Garden and as none of us had been out to the Garden for a few weeks, we were amazed and pleased at the inadvertent help from a 40-pound beaver who had nicely cut down some alder, willows and a seedling cherry tree growing along the west bank of the Island. These trees had been marked for removal, whenever we could find time, but thanks to the native instincts of this little creature, the work was now done. We understand that the Oregon Game Commission trapped Mr. Beaver and put him to work elsewhere before he got ideas about using rhododendron wood for his construction jobs.
All week we had had sunny weather with the temperature hitting a high of 66 degrees, but this morning it rained; however we all set to work, the five men and two women, planting a shipment of ferns, Woodwardii radicans , Giant Chain Fern, received earlier in the week from one of the Society members in Roseburg, Oregon. This is a very decorative evergreen fern and with it we also planted a number of Polystichum munitum , Sword Fern, among the species rhododendrons on the west side of the Island. Several plants of our native Aruncus sylvester , Goats Beard, were brought in this morning and these were also planted among the species.
After the fern planting the men moved two R. sutchuenense plants of about 5 feet in height from in front of the large 12 foot high sutchuenense var. geraldii . This plant was in full bloom at the time, a magnificent sight, and by removing the two smaller varieties from in front of it one can now enjoy the full beauty of this venerable specimen.
Due to a very mild winter plants have been blooming off and on all season. R. mucronulatum started blooming last November and continued through December and January. Let me digress a bit at this point and make a few statements about our winter. Here in the Willamette Valley we barely had enough frost last Fall to kill dahlia tops so they could be dug. Yet we remain a bit apprehensive lest a sudden drop in temperature brings frost to kill all this early bloom and growth. However, at this time the rockery is beginning to look fine with R. 'Snow Lady', 'Conemaugh', 'Rose Elf', leucaspis , pemakoense , racemosum in full bloom. At the south end of the Island a handsome plant of R. lutescens F.C.C. is in full bloom making a fine compliment for the grouping of R. 'Praecox'. But the pride of the Test Garden for the month of February is R. strigillosum blooming for the first time. It has one blood-red waxy truss that is fascinating. Our plant is only about four feet high, but someday a few years from now, it will be a glorious specimen.
Of course R. ciliatum , 'Cilpinense', 'Rosa Mundi', 'Nobleanum Venestum', are in full bloom. R. 'Elizabeth' has bloomed off and on all winter, it's like a phonograph record, you can't turn it off, but it is really beautiful even one or two bells at a time.
Last fall there was considerable work done in the big azalea bed. Originally this had been planted with some 60 deciduous azaleas, Ghents and occidentales hybrids and a number of evergreen varieties. The deciduous forms were about a foot high when planted in December of 1950. Needless to say they liked their new home for they now stand between five and six feet high and the evergreen varieties spread from three to four feet across; so it was necessary to do some thinning. Most of the evergreen azaleas were moved across the Island and planted on a slope leading up the hill from the present rockery. Across the path were planted the fine collection of Gable Azaleas sent to us last fall by a member in New Jersey. The deciduous varieties were then spread out and now occupy the entire bed set aside for these azaleas.
At this time we also made a permanent planting for the Exbury azaleas. This is located on the east side of the Island directly in back of the Coolhouse where they will receive morning sun and afternoon shade. This is a sizeable area, the soil excellent and though the plants are now small we will have a fine showing in about three years.
We have been asked several times about the large specimens of Boxwoods, Buxus sempervirens growing on the Island; so for the benefit of our new members here is a brief history of our Test Garden.
This is a natural island formed in the middle of Crystal Springs Lake, a small lake which is fed from five year-round springs. About twenty years ago it was developed as a Shakespearean garden with formal paths outlining beds of herbs, perennials and shrubs known to have grown in Shakespeare's garden at Stratford. A sprinkling system was installed by the City Park Bureau and the garden thrived for about two years when the enthusiasm of the group died of natural causes. The garden then became the lover's lane and trysting place for the Reed College students whose campus is just across the avenue. By the time the Society became interested in it, the summer of 1950, all that remained of the formal gardens were the large boxwoods, now some eight feet all, a few ragged rosemary and straggly heather plants. The native Firs, Cedars and the group of Birch trees retained their dignity and beauty over this decadent garden.
The Society obtained a charter from the City granting use of this Island for the testing of rhododendrons and the growing of ericaceous material.
The Society Test Garden was the third National Test Garden to be established by the A.R.S. The other two were set up the previous spring in the University of Washington Arboretum, Seattle, Wash. and The Morris Arboretum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Penna. To our knowledge the Test Garden here in Portland is the only one which has ever functioned; however because of the wide range of climate and growing conditions there is a need for real working test gardens throughout the United States.
The purpose of a Test Garden is to test these plants under local climatic conditions as to hardiness and growth and to grant Awards to such trial plants meeting all required tests. Those that pass the specified requirements of the Awards Committee will receive a P.A. Preliminary Award, on flower alone, an A. E. Award of Excellence, or the Test Garden Certificate, the highest award to be given to a whole plant.
This Test Garden is open to the public every day of the week from the middle of March to the middle of August and is free to all. The only time any charge is made is during the Annual Show of the Portland Chapter. The proceeds of which are turned over to the Test Garden Fund to be used for improvements.
By 1954 the plants had grown to such an extent that the Society were granted another charter from the City giving use of the adjoining peninsula, across the lake. This area now serves as an expansion area where duplicates are moved when a planting becomes too crowded on the Island. We hope by next year to concentrate our efforts on the further development of this peninsula, but for the present we must return to the Test Garden itself.
It is now almost the middle of March and the beautiful R. degronianum is in full bloom in the old rockery almost three weeks early. Without doubt they are the loveliest pink dwarf rhododendrons we have in the Test Garden. The beautiful deep pink flowers are enhanced by the long dark green leaves making it the focal point of interest as one crosses the bridge, coming onto the Island. The only plant ever to be granted the A. E. Award of Excellence is a selected form of this species, one which is very low, bushy and compact.
There are also many of the Lapponicum series in bloom and the pink, purple and lavender shades always make a delightful spring color combination. R. spiciferum , one of my favorite species, is charming against a large gray rock. When Mr. E. H. M. Cox of Scotland last visited here he was surprised to learn that we even knew this plant, let alone grow it. All who see it, praise it highly for its tiny deep pink flowers and delicate foliage.
The only big hybrids in bloom at this time are R. 'Cornubia', 'Gills Crimson' and 'Rosa Mundi', but the buds are almost bursting on a number of other varieties. Though there isn't much color at present in the hybrid beds, we can't overlook the beautiful effect of the Magnolias. M. stellata and its varieties, soulangeana , veitchii and rustica rubra are all at their best right now and create interest and color in certain spots which will be green for another month or two.
The big construction job for this spring is the building of the new rockery. This will tie into the existing rockery at the north end of the Island, carry complete around the point and up the east side for almost 200 feet and will give us an ultimate total of some 300 lineal feet of rockery with an average height between 12 and 15 feet. In order to provide ample pathway at the foot of the hill it was necessary to have a portion of the cyclone fence moved further into the Lake and the swampy space between filled with dirt. The new path is now roughed in along the water's edge for the entire length of the new project, then gradually sloped up the hill terminating at the rear of the Coolhouse by the bed of Exbury azaleas. A secondary path has been cut down the hill to provide better circulation. At present we have purchased 40 yards of some very fine lava rock which has been brought down from the Trout Lake area off the slopes of Mt. Adams and one of our own hard workers has undertaken the tedious task of placing each rock to its best advantage. We hope to have all the rocks laid in place by Show time, May 10th and 11th but it is doubtful whether much planting can be made this spring. It will take a tremendous number of dwarf rhododendrons to fill this huge area and the plants we will thin out of the present rockery really won't go very far in completing the overall planting; therefore it will possibly take two or three years before this project can be called finished. At that time it will provide the largest collection of dwarf rhododendrons, both hybrid and species to be found in any public garden in the United States.