JARS v39n2 - The Natural Garden

The Natural Garden
Paula Cash, Tigard, OR

Reprinted from Portland Chapter Newsletter

As rhododendron connoisseurs we all enjoy an outstanding mature rhododendron garden, one that reflects the creating gardener's love of beautiful flowers and growing things.
In England, when Capability Brown developed his natural landscape concept rather than the previously accepted formal patterns, he began the trend to natural landscape design and planting that present gardeners strive to achieve.
Those fortunate enough to have traveled to Bodnant Gardens in Northern Wales will recall the lovely sylvan Rhododendron Dell and its place in rhododendron history. Here mature rhododendrons and azaleas grow under guardian conifers and other companion trees with herbaceous plants near their roots. The plants of the woodland meld together in a beautiful tapestry of a wild garden.
In Oregon, the Portland Chapter, with its recent purchase of the exceptional Molly and Cecil Smith Garden, continues the appreciation of a natural woodland garden full of beautiful flowers, intriguing pathways and lovely vistas.
Along with dedication, high standards, and attention to detail, how was this natural garden achieved? Obviously the Smiths considered the naturally occurring topography of their north sloping site with the protection of Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir). The accumulation of fir needles and woodland duff was encouraged. Downed branches were chopped by Cecil and left to continue the process of decay and the formation of rich dark loam that is the heart of the success of this woodland garden. Of the original plants selected and planted, many hybrid rhododendrons have been removed to allow for Cecil's continuing interest in species and current rhododendron hybridization. When Cecil saw the success of loose friable rotted material, he began planting on top of the ground and gathering the duff material around the roots, creating a raised planting site rich in nutrients. The size of the raised bed may depend upon the eventual size of the plant or may be enlarged into a rock garden containing many rhododendrons. One R. macabeanum is on a planting site raised 18 inches and covering an area four by five feet across. Moss and Cornus canadensis have crept onto the planting mound, and the site has taken on the vigor of the rest of the garden.
Today Molly continues to participate in dead-heading rhododendrons along with Portland, Willamette and Tualatin Valley chapter members. Cecil can be seen using his well-worn hoe as a walking stick. The hoe, however, can move quickly to dispatch infrequent weeds.
Cecil has scattered seed over the years such as Erythronium, Primula, hardy Cyclamen, or has planted small wild flowers. He has kept out the competition of weeds, and they have thrived along with everything else.
In this natural garden, trees have fallen through the years, and some have been left to decay and are now covered with moss. Stumps have aged and now contain rhododendrons that prefer drier conditions and good drainage, such as R. proteoides or native Kalmiopsis leachiana .
There is a serenity about the Smith garden; the natural garden has drawn an abundance of birds that chirp joyfully as you walk along the paths. This mature rhododendron garden reflects a sense of history and the Smiths' love of beauty. It is a treasure to be absorbed by each gardener who visits. The principles of natural landscape and plant material can be applied in turn to our own plot of ground.