QBARS - v23n2 On Being a Beginner

On Being A Beginner
Clarence Barrett Jr., Eugene, Ore.

Ten years ago I didn't know the difference between a rhododendron and a hollyhock.

In 1959 my wife and I decided to build a new home in the Eugene area and selected as a building site a large lot with an area of over one-half acre. situated on a hillside overlooking the city and with an eastern exposure. As I look back on the acquisition I'm certain we were awed by the fantastic view and considered practically nothing else, since there wasn't a bush or tree on the lot and only about six inches of poor top soil of a heavy clay type over a hard yellow shale that lacked only a few centuries of becoming sandstone.

The slope of the land was so steep that the area below the house had to be terraced somewhat in order to accomplish anything in the order of a garden and the very act of terracing simply exposed more of the heavy shale and buried what little top soil existed. Landscapers and nurserymen who looked at our problem shook their heads and turned away, advising us that without the addition of hundreds of yards of loam there was little that could be done in the way of planting. In addition, we were advised that the complete absence of trees or natural growth of any kind to offer shade made the successful use of rhododendrons and azaleas even more unlikely.

Fortunately, we had a friend who owned a chicken ranch and who offered us an unlimited supply of chicken litter (a mixture of fir shavings and chicken manure) that had undergone decomposition for a year or so. A client who owned a small dump truck offered its use so we hauled 35 loads of litter (hand loaded with a pitch fork) and spread it about six inches thick over the entire area that was to be planted, tilling it into areas that were level enough to till and mixing it into the soil with a shovel on the steep areas. (We have since learned that chicken litter is a prime source of nematode infestation, but apparently the litter we used was free of this pest.)

My wife purchased a number of tiny azaleas, for 19 cents each, and these were freely planted in the banks and mulched with fir and alder sawdust. We read of a sale being held in a nearby town by a man who was closing out a variety of nursery stock, so we attended and purchased quite a lot of things, including some sizeable rhododendrons. At this stage you must realize that to us a rhododendron was a rhododendron, pink, or white, red or sometimes purple and the thought of paying $10.00 for a two foot plant just because it had a name tag on it was ridiculous when this man had four and five foot plants he was offering for $2.00 and $3.00, including delivery to our home. Needless to say, some of the rhododendrons turned out to be R. ponticum seedlings and the rest nondescript seedlings of unknown parentage with practically no landscape value. But the important thing is that the azaleas and rhododendrons seemed to thrive in full sun and with only the few inches of mixed chicken litter and heavy clay. The only plant that faltered did so because a pocket had formed in the clay beneath it and the water could not escape, but as soon as an escape trough was dug in the heavy clay from the root ball to the edge of the bank, this plant began to flourish.

We soon acquired a few basic garden hybrids such as 'Blue Peter', 'Mars', 'Purple Splendour', 'Sappho' and others, but the cost still seemed almost prohibitive, particularly in the larger sizes, and when one considers that we had about a half acre to landscape the rhododendrons we had purchased seemed terribly far apart. So I began to consider the possibility of propagating a few plants myself, in order to save the cost of buying more. I found that basic information on the propagation of rhododendrons was extremely scarce, but in the public library I finally stumbled across Dr. Leach's then recent book, Rhododendrons of the World and How to Grow Them . 1

1 Charles Scribner Sons, 1961, New York.

After a very short browse, I knew I had to have this book so I "conned" my wife into making this my next birthday gift and after receiving and reading the book, I was hopelessly and helplessly hooked - I had contracted the permanent and incurable "virus" known as "rhododendron fever" and was forever after to be known as a "rhododendron nut." I would defy anyone to read Dr. Leach's colorful descriptions of the various species of rhododendron without becoming infected with the same "virus" that struck me down, even though the person had not the opportunity to see the plants themselves.

Based upon the information I gleaned from Dr. Leach's book and advice from a couple of friends who were almost as inexperienced as I, the first group of cuttings was inserted in the rooting medium in a small plastic greenhouse, constructed at a cost of less than $50.00, including running water and a used electric heater. The greenhouse was 10 ft. x 16 ft. with 2 x 2 studs and rafters every 24 inches. I couldn't resist checking every week or so to see if roots were going to appear and frankly, I was amazed and somewhat awed when the first fully rooted cutting was raised from the bed and transplanted into a flat.

Of the first group of about 100 cuttings, approximately 60 rooted and about 30 grew to maturity after spending the first year in a crude lath house constructed of waste materials, on a steep slope. Quite a number of seedlings of random deciduous azaleas also germinated in that small greenhouse and eventually reached blooming size. With this success, I was encouraged to try on a larger scale the next year.

The following year about 300 cuttings were inserted and approximately 200 rooted and were subsequently transferred into the lath house where they, too, prospered. As subsequent crops of cuttings became ready for the lath house, the established plants were moved out into the open sun and lined out in the garden in the mixture of clay and chicken litter. There they grew surprisingly well until, after three or four years, I found there was no longer any space to grow vegetables - we were crowded with hundred of rhododendrons and azaleas.

Each plant, of course, was a personal friend and would be sorely missed if it were to be sold or given away, so the only logical thing to do was to find a larger place (by now you can begin to see the tail wagging the dog). We indulged in all sorts of rationalizations in listing our home for sale: The children were growing up and we didn't need such a big house; the city was inevitably going to pave the street and put in sewers at a great expense to us; we were too close to our neighbors and so on. But the real truth is that the "virus" had taken its toll, so sell the place we did and we acquired 25 acres in its place.

The purchaser of the old place required possession by June 1, so it was necessary to move all our plants during an unusually dry Spring to the new place where the only source of water was a drilled well producing only about four gallons per minute - much too small a quantity to properly care for the number of plants we had, particularly when no water storage facility was available and the only prepared soil was in full sun with no provision whatever for partial shade. This fact alone accounted for the loss of over half the plants we had raised. As if this were not enough, when the first Fall rains came it became obvious that the field we had chosen for planting had not sufficient drainage and it became a quagmire during the Winter. This lack of proper drainage also took a large toll so the plants that were left the following Spring must have been the most punished, but the toughest rhododendrons in the State of Oregon. Since the remaining plants were planed on a gentle North slope that Spring, beneath the high shade of huge old oak and pine trees that had been thinned to provide an ideal combination of sun and shade, most have since continued to thrive.

Unfortunately, we were so eager to relieve the suffering of our sun-scorched, rain-drenched plants that we did not take the time to kill all weeds and weed seed, blackberry brambles, poison oak and other noxious plants before planting the rhododendrons. Further, we did not as yet have an adequate water supply so we could not put in the water distribution system before planting. These matters were to take a further toll at a later time.

With the success we had had in the little plastic greenhouse still fresh in mind, I had visions of a much greater success if only we could afford to build a much larger glass house. By buying rough cedar and re-sawing and finishing it ourselves, we were able to have a well designed, well constructed house 20 x 24 feet for around $300.00, plumbed and wired. A lath house was constructed of old materials salvaged from the razing of an old barn on the property, with raised beds constructed of the same materials. The lath house was located on a gentle slope, but the beds were leveled to facilitate watering (a mistake as it will develop later).

Inasmuch as we had available a laboratory balance (scale) of a very accurate nature, we decided to experiment with various concentrations of rooting hormone, in two forms, powdered and liquid. Quite a number of cuttings were obtained and each type divided as nearly as possible into three groups, the first treated with a liquid solution containing the hormone as set out in Dr. Leach's book 2 the second treated with 3-indolebutyric acid at one percent in talc

2 Rhododendrons of the World and How to Grow Them, Ibid at p. 319 et seq.

and the third group treated with 3-indolebutyric acid at 1.6 percent in talc, about double the strength of the strongest commercial preparation available on the market. With about 1500 cuttings we obtained about an 80 percent rooting ratio, with very little difference in the various hormone compounds, although we obtained a little more success with the powders than with the liquid hormone.

It was upon transplanting the cuttings out of the hot bed into a cold intermediate bed that I learned why most rhododendron growers don't seem to have large glass greenhouses (I had wondered about this when visiting nurseries locally). It proved impossible with the facilities at my disposal to keep the temperature and humidity at proper levels in the large greenhouse, and consequently large numbers of the rooted cuttings died. Many of them survived, however, and were eventually planted out into the lath house beds in carefully tilled and prepared soil. An automatic sprinkling system was installed overhead and when new growth began to show an appropriate fertilizer was applied. A month later practically every plant was dead and the ones that were not didn't show much promise. Naturally we were heartsick, but we attributed the losses to the fact that we had tilled some horse manure into the beds the previous fall and it probably had not had sufficient time to decay but had soured. So, a sad blow, but all part of the learning process.

The following Fall a similar number of cuttings was inserted in the hot bed, treated with 3-indolebutyric acid in talc at 1.5 percent with Captan forming 25 percent of the total volume. Rooting percentages were again very good and this time we covered the cold beds in the greenhouse with sheets of plastic to keep the humidity up so that a much larger percentage of the rooted cuttings survived and began to put on a new growth in the greenhouse. This year the lath house beds were thoroughly tilled and a six inch layer of peat moss and sand placed on top. This, we felt, must certainly prevent the new plants from becoming affected by anything in the lower levels of the beds. Six weeks after the plants were moved from greenhouse beds into the lath house, almost all were dead. The weather was hot but only enough moisture was used on the plants to keep them from wilting so we were certain drainage could not be a problem. In fact, the root balls of dead plants were practically dried out and we considered the possibility that we had not used enough water.

On a hunch I stuck a shovel deep into a group of dead plants and turned out the soil. Nothing surprising turned up. But when the shovel was again put into the same hole and plunged deeply into the sub soil, the answer was obvious for the most foul smelling, sour soil I had ever encountered turned up. Needless to say, I spent a good part of last summer excavating all the beds and removing the heavy clay sub soil to a depth of over two feet, then cutting a cross section of a "V" in the bottom of each, with four inch drain tile embedded in gravel in the bottom of the "V" to carry away excess water. At this writing we have an excellent group of rooted cuttings coming along in the greenhouse (under plastic) and have high hopes of a successful year in the lath house as well.

Upon considering the matter of drainage it now appears obvious that the leveling of the beds created pockets in the heavy clay soil that would not have been created if a new soil mixture had been prepared and simply filled into a wood framework sitting on top of the normal slope of the land. This was apparently why I had had no trouble at the old place where the soil was an even heavier clay and where the slope was greater.

It has now been about three years since the plants we brought from the old place were moved into partial shade beneath old oaks and pines. Each year we have made a little more progress in disposing of the Canadian thistles and other weeds with the use of chemicals and by hand pulling, but they still continue to show up each Spring, as I suppose they always will. The poison oak is very susceptible to chemical control and has been easily disposed of, but the wild blackberry brambles are another matter. They seem to spread more each year in spite of our control efforts. Chemical control is impossible due to their proximity to the rhododendrons and when one is pulled up, the remaining roots seem to send up new shoots all over the place. In addition, new seedlings spring up everywhere, probably due to the ideal moist conditions provided for the rhododendrons. Apparently it will be necessary to work on them for many years before any degree of control is achieved. Of course, as future areas are planned for planting, all unwanted vegetation will be chemically eliminated before the planting is done.

We were fortunate in having on our place a spring that runs about five gallons per minute the year around. We acquired a used steel tank of 10,000 gallons capacity and this tank is on a hill overlooking our gardens. The spring water is pumped automatically day and night to the large storage tank and a sprinkling system is operated by gravity from there. Five gallons of water each minute, 24 hours a day really amounts to quite a lot of water when stored for convenient use and so far we have had no shortage. As the older plants become more established they require less water and more becomes available for newer plantings. We know, however, that a great deal more water will be required before much more expansion is possible. We are informed that 50 gallons a minute is available at a depth of 450 feet so a new deep well is in the eventual offing.

Since our main planting was already in by the time we put in a water distribution system, we found it necessary to constantly dodge plants when operating the cumbersome trenching machine with which we dug the ditches for the plastic pipe. Small plants were covered with the dirt when they were unnoticed and a few were lost in this manner. Branches were broken off larger plants and heavy clay soil was deposited on top of mulch, along with dormant weed seed from the sub soil. The process would have been so much easier and less damaging if it had been done before the area was planted.

Those who live in the Willamette Valley know that there is an abundance of loamy, fertile river bottom land available in the Eugene area where drainage is no problem, where the soil contains an abundance of humus, where plenty of water is available for the taking in inexpensive shallow wells, where noxious weeds and other objectionable plant life have already been substantially controlled and where the land is level and easy to work. Why, then, would any reasonably sane "rhododendron nut" choose to carve a garden out of clay jungle where water is scarce and problems abound?

Perhaps it is a bit of the challenge of conquering the apparently unconquerable; perhaps a bit of a need for privacy and the preservation of the wild state for a few more years in an area that is rapidly becoming densely populated, particularly where ideal growing conditions exist. But mostly, I think, it is the infinite variety of landscaping and gardening possibilities that is presented. There are North slopes, South slopes, East and West slopes; flat areas and steep areas and every degree of slope in between; there are dry areas and perpetually wet areas, sunny areas and areas of deep shade. Wild ferns, trilliums and wild iris abound and huge fir stumps, sometimes over five feet in diameter and gradually rotting away, present many ideal planting situations.

There are areas so protected that high winds blowing over the higher ground and raising havoc with gardens in the valley, are scarcely felt at all. What an ideal spot for the large leafed species if ever I can get some to the size that will bear planting out in such a situation. There is a ten acre plot of fir re-growth that is so dense one can sit in the middle of it and only occasionally hear a distant sound of civilization. A herd of approximately 15 deer live on the place and, being unmolested, will often stand quietly while we walk within a few feet of them. Fortunately they seem to know the leaves of rhododendrons are poisonous and they do not bother them, although they will eat the tender new shoots of some evergreen azaleas and camellias. They may once in a while break off a branch or step on a small plant, but their great beauty in this natural setting makes it worth while.

Our place is only six miles from my office in the City of Eugene - closer than some subdivisions within the city itself. There are many such places within easy driving distance of Eugene and many other cities in the Northwest that have perhaps been disregarded or rejected by gardeners or rhododendron buffs who are afraid of the heavy clay soil so common to the hill country. For those who would undertake to tame such a place I would offer some suggestions: Be sure an abundance of water is available in the area, either from existing streams or springs or potential drilled wells; prepare all planting sites in advance by poisoning weeds, poison oak and other unwanted vegetation and particularly wild blackberry brambles; go a little overboard in providing drainage, particularly on flat land and very gentle slopes - steep slopes will present no problem if a drainage trench is provided from the bottom of each planting hole; content yourself with a plastic greenhouse for a while - it may be inconvenient to replace the plastic each year, but it is easier and cheaper to heat and to maintain the humid atmosphere rhododendrons require; maintain a large compost heap since you will be constantly adding it to the planting mix as each plant is set out in its permanent location.

Above all, don't give up. If you run into a problem you can't solve, don't be afraid to ask someone - you may get a helpful answer and learn something in the process. After all, in only ten short years I can now tell at a glance the difference between a rhododendron and a hollyhock!