JARS v40n2 - Bear Garden Farm: Trials and Errors

Bear Garden Farm: Trials and Errors
John B. Buschmann
New Canton, Virginia

Article adapted from one printed in the Mid-Atlantic Chapter newsletter

Our farm is 150 years old and lies along the James River at New Canton, Virginia, in Buckingham County. The elevation here is 300 feet with rolling hills and deciduous and pine forests. Our weather is quite changeable and variable. The lowest temperature I have seen is 12 degrees below zero (F) and the highest is 102 degrees (F). We have had frost as early as September 20th and as late as May 10th. Rain averages 40 inches per year, but it is normal to have more than one severe drought period (8 to 9 weeks with no rain) in a year. The temperatures vary the same way. We frequently have warm spells around Christmas, January 20th and February 14th and in early April. These weather variables make it very difficult to JUST GROW azaleas and rhododendrons. The soil where the plants grow is acid "Cecil" soil, varying from clay to sandy loam.

Bear Garden Farm

The house and grounds are on a hill, 100 feet above the river and comprising over 2 acres sloping in all directions. The trees are very old, mostly over 150 years, and are spread around the place. Most are maples and elms, with some oak, locust, sugarberry and walnut.
I grow all kinds of plants with an emphasis on non-ordinary plants and trees. Peonies, tree peonies, weeping dogwood, cut leaf English oak, Hinoki cypress, clematis and Franklinia are examples. Most of the flowering plants are azaleas and rhododendrons (20,000+) which I have growing under every imaginable condition. Approximately 750 varieties are being tried plus thousands of seedlings. There is normally something blooming all year long. My own hybrid daylilies give the longest blooming period, from May to November, and are the easiest flowers to grow. Azaleas and rhododendrons are the most challenging and very rewarding. Varieties start blooming here in February with R. mucronulatum and end in October with the azalea of similar name, 'Mucronatum'.
Here at the farm we grow most of the Ironclads, the Gables, some Robin Hills, some Dexters, some Nearings, Glenn Dales, Linwoods, Back Acres, Satsukis and all types of deciduous azaleas. I'll just mention those plants that do well and/or are of particular interest. First of all, the best doers here are the Roseums with their trouble free vigor, growth and consistent blooming. In this same category are the "scalies" like R. mucronulatum and R. dauricum crosses, 'PJM' and 'Mary Fleming'. 'Hershey's Red', 'Rosebud' and 'Takako' are consistently the best azaleas. This turned out to be a surprise considering the wide range of azaleas (about 700) that we grow. Maybe this will change as our plantings get older.
Some plants of special interest are: 'Flamingo' x R. yakushimanum (Keyser); R. maximum x R. haematodes (Goodrich); R. chapmanii crosses (Wise); R. serrulatum x R. prunifolium (Early); R. viscosum and R. bakeri crosses (Wise). 'Rukizon' x R. nakaharai (Oleri) is an azalea cross that can really take adversity and stays close to the ground. How about this cross by Fetterhoff ( R. maximum x R. wardii ) x {('America' x 'Britannia') x [('America' x 'Blaze') x ('America' x 'Mars')]}? Maybe 'Shaazam' x 'Sumatra' will turn out well too.
Other rhododendrons that "do good" and have excellent flowers are 'Wheatley', 'Gloxineum' (a complete surprise), 'Shaazam', 'Sumatra' (best red) and 'Naomi Pixie'. 'Ginny Gee' is the best doer of all the newer varieties. 'Ginny Gee' has grown, thrived and bloomed under every possible adverse condition; extreme temperature variation and drought. It has bloomed in full sun, part shade, and full shade.
I am not a gardener, but rather a grower and experimenter and do lots of trial and error work with farm crops and garden plants.
Having seen the difficulties with ericaceous plants and noticing that seedlings often adapt well to their environments, I started hybridizing about five years ago. Since I did not have suitable parent plants at first, most seeds were purchased or were given to me by other hybridizers. Consequently, the crosses number in the high hundreds from many locations and there are now at least 20,000+ seedlings growing everywhere.
In our work with seedlings there are always disappointments and surprises. With our climate and cultural practices the disappointments include the R. yakushimanum crosses. They seldom do well after the 3rd or 4th year. They just gradually die off. There are always exceptions and those that do well, but you cannot see any of the yakushimanum characteristics.
Haematodes crosses look excellent, but are susceptible to late spring frosts. The best crosses are from fortunei . They have vigor, are consistent bloomers early in life and most are fragrant. 'Mars' does not grow well here but the 'Mars' crosses do well, though no exceptional flowers have shown yet.
We have realized that most seedlings do better than most known hybrids. If they will have better flowers only time will tell.
The trial work encompasses named varieties, seedlings, site locations, propagation methods, mulches, and companion plants. My goal is to find plants that will grow, thrive, and bloom here with nominal care. It can be done. Everything here is an on site visual lesson on growing and care. You can see what happens under different conditions and get a good idea as to what will be best and worst in your own yard.
For rhododendron enthusiasts the seedlings are a sight to behold. Type of growth, foliage, and the exceptional cross variations are wondrous. Already there are some exceptional results: a pink blooming R. viscosum , a very deep pink R. minus and an excellent purple ('Caractacus' x R. fortunei ).
Only time will tell what all will show up. Why not accept an invitation? Come see for yourself and learn. People interested only in landscape design or a spectacular display may be disappointed, but people interested in horticulture and learning will find a visit worthwhile.

Furnace Field

John Buschmann describes himself as a pilot, farmer and hybridizer. His wife, Jean, is an artist.