JARS v39n4 - Rhododendron Garden in Virginia

Rhododendron Garden in Virginia
Nina Mann
Lancaster, VA

Our house is on a point facing the water of Myer Creek, a tributary of the Corrotoman River which is itself a tributary of the Rappahannock. It consists of two and a quarter acres of woodland populated by big oaks, pines, gums, liriodendrons and hollies. The understory is almost solid laurel.

Rhododendrons and azaleas line the driveway, surround the house and march down the side of a steep ravine which ends at the water. My hope had been to build the garden all the way to the water, but my stamina wore out and the dream must await a new dreamer.

The major part of the planting took place in the mid-seventies. Planting now has dwindled to an occasional plant in the spring or fall. I am waiting for the spring when these plants, most of them around ten years old, plan to put on their first real flower show. They are all madly in bud.

Having a garden in the woodlands of Virginia is mainly a battle between wind, sun, water or lack of it, insects, animals and lastly, mother nature herself. I have won some and lost some but the plants are still on the hill, growing happily and now are ready to bloom.

The largest oak we have is down in the ravine. It is actually a combination of five oaks grown together at their base. It forms a monster tree, towering over the entire ravine and all of its plants. A hive of bees builds its honeycombs in one big trunk. A fox dens in a big hole in the common base. Owls tuck themselves in nooks and crannies for the day and flee on silent wings when I go down to the ravine. Many things live and prosper among the plants; cutworms of mammoth proportions, moles that eat them, mice that live in the mole tunnels and eat anything handy, including poison pellets, rabbits that munch the new growth and deer that browse the same in the winter. The insects, at times, overrun us all. This spring I picked the largest tobacco worm I have ever seen from a leaf of 'Lamplighter.' It had just eaten half the plant.

The first hint of things to come arrived several years ago when a big oak threw down one of its upper limbs, pinning but not destroying, rhododendron 'Butterfly' beneath it. The rest of the branch arranged itself in such a manner that not a plant more was disturbed. A big hole was left in the overhead where the sun looked down on plants below for the first time.

Other smaller limbs and pieces of limbs come down occasionally as the big trees prune themselves from the top, but no plant has been struck. Last year the same big oak tree decided to jettison another and bigger limb. The butt of it struck a slate step and smashed it to pieces. On one side of the slate were three 'Mrs. Tom Lowinskys.' On the other a group of stewartstonians. But a big laurel caught the rest of the limb and supported it sufficiently so no plant was destroyed. Now more sun shines on the hill.

Three years of infestations by caterpillars took their toll of the big trees. They killed four of the trees in the big five oak group in the ravine and their gaunt remains now hang over most of the plants in that area. Everything up there must come down. Some of the ends and smaller limbs have already done so and so far have landed safely. It seems that someone up there is looking after things.

Each spring is a new beginning. The damage disappears under a flurry of new growth. But May was to open wide the door to the sun.

Wind storms are not unusual anywhere but this one was. It came out of nowhere. Suddenly the big trees bowed to the north and there was a blizzard of small limbs and pieces. It lasted only a few minutes and then was gone. Inspection revealed everything intact. Three bonsai stood on a bench in full view of the wind. Other potted plants stood unmoved on the ground. But farther out in the driveway was an unbelievable sight. Along about thirty feet of the driveway all of the rhododendrons and azaleas had disappeared beneath a pile of huge branches. We pulled a few small limbs back from a few plants. Hershey's Red and Puff Pink were flattened, but only a few twigs were broken. Limbs were draped all over 'Arthur Pride', 'Betty Wormald,' 'Mary Fleming' and 'Clementine Lemaire.' 'King Midas', a big deciduous azalea, was flattened out along with Fuchsia and 'Hotspur'. When the chain saw had reduced the debris to a huge stack in the middle of the driveway we took stock, 'Nova Zembla' and 'Betty Wormald' had lost their tops but the lower halves were still intact. 'Arthur Pride' lost some limbs but was mostly intact. Puff Pink and Hershey's Red perked up when they were all uncovered, but they lost a good many twigs. A mahonia in a tub was stripped of most of its leaves but is putting out new ones. 'Mary Fleming,' 'Clementine Lemaire' and 'Sekidera Magnifica' were bent but not broken. Our uninvited guest was a twister which had touched down to the south of us throwing down three large trees, one on the owner's house. It then picked itself up, skipped over most of our woods and dropped down again to take out the top half of two big oaks, then demolished a maple completely and blew everything about thirty feet from where it started, to land on the edge of my garden. It then skipped away to play pranks elsewhere. No one else in our neighborhood knew it went by. Our big trees, now either diminished by nature's pruning or killed, had provided a large amount of protection from the morning sun for the plants on the hill and down in the ravine. But the mad rush of the plants to bud up this season makes one wonder how much of a catastrophe this really has been. In any event, the minimum of loss does indicate that there is indeed a guardian of gardens.