JARS v36n3 - Reminiscences of a Rhododendron Grower

Reminiscences of a Rhododendron Grower
Ted Van Veen, Portland, Oregon

Reprinted from the Rosebay

The days of my youth were happy ones. Perhaps the blessings weren't fully appreciated at the time, but looking back the pleasant memories are in the foreground. Possibly my recall is a bit biased, but the joys are decidedly focused on those days with my father in his nursery.

The early memories go back to the year I was six. George and his husky team of brown horses were plowing our half-acre. To a young boy, there was a decided pleasure in the smell of the sweating horses that towered over me so majestically. The brushing of leather harnesses and distinctive rattle of chains, comprising the complicated gear used to pull the single-bladed plow, are sounds from a past era. Knee-deep in the furrow, I walked behind George as he struggled to guide the plow. The long reins ran under each arm and were tied together behind his back. I marveled at how the huge beasts obeyed his commands. With the familiar 'clack-clack' between the teeth at the side of his mouth and a firm 'giddap', two horses set off as one, with a hefty jerk. His shouts of 'gee' and 'haw' and 'whoa' were commands to be obeyed - impressive teamwork on the part of all three. And there was the enchantment of canvas feedbags filled with a ration of oats for lunch. All this provided imaginative games of 'let's pretend' and pleasant dreams for a tired boy at the end of the day.

At about the same time span, I was helping my father prepare boxwood cuttings. A table knife was used to cut a precise straight line across the wet sand in the cold-frame, in which to insert the scions. The pleasant scent of damp boxwood cuttings and fresh, clean sand is another great memory I will never forget. In a far corner, I tended my own little 4x8 'nursery', surrounded by protective string tied to sticks. These, of course, were pre-rhododendron days. My father was moonlighting a small quantity of general-line nursery stock while working days as a caretaker on the large estate of a prominent local banker.

The year was 1926 when we moved to our present location and the name 'Van Veen Nursery' was established. This property had been a tract of ground used by Thomas Steele, an internationally known pansy hybridizer. I will never forget this tall, kindly old gentleman placing his hand on my shoulder and stating proudly, "An ounce of pansy seed is worth more than an ounce of gold". To my delight, George and his beautiful work horses were back with us to plow and harrow our new one-acre lot. By this time, azalea seedlings were the principal line. Our catalog included 'Altaclarensis', 'J. C. Van Tol', 'Louisa Hunnewell', mollis , amoenum , 'Hinode-giri', kaempferi , macrantha , maxwellii , and a surprising number of native species. It's fascinating and unique coloring made 'J. C. Van Tol' my favorite.

The azaleas were started in cold-frames covered with glass sash about 3' by 6'. For shading we built frames the same size as the glass sash with plaster lath nailed to 1×4's. Several times each day the glass, together with the lath, had to be raised for hand watering. A roll of muslin cloth was ready at the end of each cold frame for covering when the sun became too intense. If warm weather persisted, a small block was placed under each end of the sash for an opening to reduce the high humid temperature.

To the best of my recollection we didn't seem to have a problem with damp-off or mildew, but I am sure we must have experienced some of these difficulties. I am not certain of the year, but we did use Captan. I recall this only because a part-time workman used this fungicide to keep athlete's foot under control.

German peat moss was our propagating medium. In those days it was shipped in large heavy bales tightly compressed in burlap and bound around by four strands of baling wire stapled to pieces of supporting lath running the length of the bale. The peat was chipped off with a pitchfork and pounded into usable form. This was a tedious task, with dust covering hair, nostrils, throat and sweating body.

In the early thirties our local power company, in cooperation with Oregon State University, was seeking new use applications for electricity in agriculture and horticulture. Franklin D. Roosevelt's white elephant, Bonneville Dam, was under construction. How could the area possibly use all that excess power? The Robersons of Seattle had developed a lead heating cable. As a trial this was installed as bottom heat in one of our cold frames. We now had a hotbed. The idea was good, but proved unreliable because as yet a moisture proof thermostat had not been developed.

Then came the Dutch greenhouse. For those not familiar with this concept, a deep trench is dug wide enough for a walkway down the center and the length of the proposed greenhouse. Propagation benches are built at ground level on each side of the trench. Over this, an "A" frame is constructed with 2×4's. The glass sash used on the cold-frames is tipped against the "A" frame lengthwise from soil line to peak. The beds were covered with another set of glass to create the necessary humidification. Newspapers were placed over the glass to keep out hot sun.

Prior to emigrating to this country, father had worked at nurseries in Holland, England and Canada. My exposure to the nursery came very early in life. When I was born, father was working for J. B. Pilkington's Nursery in Durham, a suburb of Portland. My parents lived in a house on the nursery site. I have Pilkington's catalog for the year I came into this world, that includes an extensive list of rhododendrons. This is not surprising, for Pilkington was a very English Englishman.

Father was confident that rhododendrons could be rooted economically from cuttings. He refused to graft or layer, as was the common practice in the 1920's. Hormones were not yet in existence. I recall his trials with various sugars as dips, including honey and molasses. Recently I discovered an old bottle of potassium permanganate, which was a favorite of early propagators. Father's record book for 1932 indicates 78% success with rooting - an excellent percentage for the time. This same year he planted seed of 24 species from F. W. Schumacher.

In the early thirties, named hybrids were not too readily available in the Northwest. To get starts, father collected cuttings from friends, parks and cemeteries. Most of his early propagations were listed by description, such as "pink edge, ashy-pink center." There is a note in his records of receiving californica alba from James Barto at this time, and also a list of species from Joe Gable, with whom he went on to exchange plants over many years.

There is no record, but the year had to be prior to 1932, when we received a shipment of budded stock plants from Cottage Gardens Nursery in Eureka, California. They came up the coast by boat, and were packed in coffin-like wooden boxes with excelsior to hold the plants in place. Among the plants were some of 'Pink Pearl’, which are now giant plants, still at our nursery. I often think about the thousands of cuttings clipped from these plants over a period exceeding 50 years. And then I consider the possible tens of thousands of additional cuttings taken from the plants produced from that original stock, and so on down through many generations. I find it hard to believe our nation isn't literally covered by 'Pink Pearl'.

We were feeling the effects of the Great Depression. Being a husky teenager, my developing muscles were called upon to replace George and his horses. Our fields needed spading; after many days I had an educated shovel and was a master of the art of hand-spading. Experience taught me to turn the soil to a reasonable good depth, and at the same time with minimum effort reduce the clods to a small size, all the while maintaining an even soil level.

And then there was the peddler, Johnny Hobbs, endowed with smooth talk and never without a new story of his experiences. His operations provided beans for our table: late each afternoon we filled the luggage compartment of his Ford coupe with a wheelbarrow load of balled and burlapped azaleas. As payment, he would then peel off some of the bills from the roll of his day's earnings as a door-to-door salesman.

True to national origin, my father was a perfectionist. He was a proud man, and as a result the nursery was always maintained in Dutch-clean order. Needless to say, we strove to keep the weed population to point zero. Not enjoying the luxury of herbicides, my nimble fingers were seemingly forever pulling weeds from seedling beds.

In the field we used a three-pronged push cultivator which was difficult to operate until I acquired enough height to reach the handles. Plodding up and down each row, stripped to the waist, the flying dust covered my upper torso and streamed up my pant legs.

Our scuffle hoe was perfect for uprooting small weeds, which were then left to die in the drying sun. This hoe was unlike the double bladed tool found in some garden centers today. It had an exceptionally long handle, enabling a wide reach from one position. The single, half-moon blade, sharpened on both sides, was about five inches long. Light in weight, I found this to be an invaluable tool.

Portland's summer rainfall is less than three inches. In order to retain moisture in the soil a little longer without the benefit of mulching, we used a technique my father learned in Holland. A day or so after a rain or field watering, the top crust of soil was lightly hand cultivated. By shuffling our feet along each row, the soil was reduced to fine particles of dust. In effect, this created a simple mulch to slow the evaporation of moisture from the soil.

The effects of the depression were strongly felt in our business. I was getting older, and the decision was made to seek outside employment. The year was 1938 when I secured a position with International Business Machines Corporation, where I was to stay until my father's sudden death in 1961 at age eighty.

In the meantime, father went on to build more greenhouses, expand the business, and generally establish an excellent name for himself as a rhododendron grower and hybridizer. I remember how happy he was with his new hybrid 'Evening Glow'. This was the yellowest of the yellows at the time. I am reminded also of his intense enthusiasm for the American Rhododendron Society, of which he was a charter member. He was innovative and progressive, and maintained a high degree of interest in everything until the day he died. Misting for propagation, now widely accepted, was an original idea he developed with the assistance of a heating engineer friend who used oil burner nozzles for the mist spray.

Possibly these recollections are more for my benefit than yours: my apologies. For a number of years I have intended to put these thoughts on paper before time erases the fond memories; you have provided this opportunity.

Two of my brothers are medical men, and lived at home during most of their schooling. Our refrigerator always seemed to be the repository for some stray part of the human anatomy. One day my mother insisted that a skull be moved elsewhere. Being of no further value, it was buried on the nursery grounds - the exact spot is not now known. I like to tell my new employees, "if you work hard and long enough - really dig in - you can get a head in the nursery business!"