JARS v41n1 - Starting A New Garden? Go Ahead and Try It!

Starting A New Garden?
Go Ahead and Try It!

Gordon Wylie, Eugene, Oregon

The talk upon which this article is based was billed as "Starting a New Garden - The First Eight Years". While preparing for it by reviewing slides and otherwise thinking back over the past several years, however, the alternative title "Go Ahead And Try It" kept coming to mind. These comments are based upon some of my experiences in doing what the latter title suggests.
The beginner exploring cultural requirements for rhododendrons finds books and articles strongly emphasize the need to create a proper environment for the intended plantings. Achieving that environment may require a substantial delay, perhaps several years, before beginning to build any real collection. Indeed, for the exposed site one well-known writer has suggested planting trees and then waiting at least five years before initiating rhododendron plantings.
The trees providing shelter should be species with deep root runs so that they will not compete with shallow rooted rhododendrons. Pine and oak varieties, for example, are prominently mentioned for this characteristic as well as the acidifying effect of their leaf fall.
Beyond trees of some maturity, other factors more readily achieved are important. A comprehensive soil test is often suggested. This may reveal a need for soil amendments to adjust pH, or for the addition of nutrients, particularly trace elements. Nearly perfect drainage is essential, with raised beds often advised.
Faced with this advice, I think we can sometimes be made too timid in our gardening. A willingness to risk disappointment, even loss of some plants, is more than offset, I believe, by the rewards of success and learning experienced with a bolder approach.
Maybe it's because I'm fortunate enough to garden in one of the more equable climates for rhododendrons. In any event, I have not found all the advice must be taken as dogma. It's not that the experts should be ignored or that they are wrong. Rather, if one delays planting rhododendrons while modifying the garden environment to achieve ideal conditions, you miss several years of experience and pleasure from what does work and, perhaps most important, learning about one's own particular garden spot.
Someone has defined a gardener as a person who sees a place in his garden that needs something and decides what plant would go best there. The collector - who is I guess a few notches down the scale from a gardener - is the person who sees and acquires a new plant and then tries to decide where to put it in his yard.
I must confess to being in the second group. Of course the genus Rhododendron provides at least some excuse for this behavior, with its spectacular nature and huge variety sending a seductive siren song. In any event, being an impatient collector, led me on the approach suggested above.

Gordon Wylie garden.
The Wylie's garden
Photo by Gordon Wylie

With the reader now forewarned about some of my biases, I'll try to describe what I've done over the past few years. Mistakes there have been, but disappointments were few, with the rewards very much in the majority.
During most summers, our community experiences a good number of 90F days and every few years several in the 100F neighborhood. Despite our reputation for rain, we often have one or two months during the summer with no rain whatsoever. Wind comes up nearly every day by 10 or 11 in the morning and continues until evening.
The draw seen in some of the pictures and the long way of the house are generally oriented in a north/ south direction. Thus, most of the area to be gardened has no northern exposure and is in the sun most of the day.
One consequence of the weather pattern and my planting scheme is plants with somewhat smaller leaves. The leaves are also a bit lighter green and sometimes get burned at the tips and around the edges. On the other hand, the foliage is generally thicker. Bloom bud set is outstanding. Usually, by the second year of blooming maturity for a given plant, virtually every terminal has those fat buds we look for in the fall and anticipate the results of all through the winter. As can be seen from the pictures, I began with a brush patch consisting mostly of that pesky import, the evergreen blackberry. This was cleared away the first summer by dint of substantial mechanical and physical labor, helped along by some profanity from time to time.

Wylie garden beginnings.
Garden beginnings
Photo by Gordon Wylie

We moved into the house in November and put up with mud from the newly cleared area through the winter. To eliminate that and establish some parameters for the yard, I started planting grass early the next spring. Of course it was the following fall before it was all in because every time I got the ground ready to plant grass seed a good rain storm would come along and I'd have to re-till. Then it was summer and too hot to plant grass. Not surprisingly, within five or six years, I was removing some of that hard won sod to enlarge shrub beds. Also, early that first spring, I visited a local nurseryman specializing in rhododendrons. He did a basic landscape plan for me which I generally followed in the area immediately surrounding the house. I have to admit, though, to not having looked at that plan for several years now and of never on paper modifying it or doing another one despite many changes and expansions from the original. Again, this is a violation of the advice one often sees.
The admonition to plant trees was also given attention during the first year. As most were planted during the summer, they were mainly container grown and it was indeed five or six years before they began to show some size and any real presence in the landscape.
The first rhododendrons planted were two groupings of reasonably sun tolerant hybrids ('Unique' and The Honorable Jean Marie de Montague') placed where they receive sun nearly all day, with trees at either end of the beds that would eventually provide shelter. There was an existing copse of English walnut trees casting some shade to the north of the grove. A few plants went into this area where, as I look back now, they appeared quite lonesome. Altogether I planted perhaps fifteen to twenty rhododendrons the first year.
With regard to the walnuts, I was aware of their purported toxicity to other plant material, although black walnuts are apparently worse than English walnuts in this characteristic. Walnuts also have shallow feeder roots - I was planting right up next to the outside row - which would presumably compete vigorously with rhododendrons. The shallow roots of those walnuts would be encouraged by the frequent watering required for the rhododendrons.
Nevertheless, I have sturdy, heavily blooming plants in this area. It is the largest single mass planting, with close to a hundred plants. I do fertilize these plants regularly, which probably helps them thrive, but it is another example of bending the rules that seems to have worked.
Another thing undertaken early on and from which I am still learning, and I hope improving, is what I refer to as a rock garden. Certainly it doesn't qualify as a proper rock garden as the English would do. In fact, I suppose the first year or so it mostly looked like nothing more than a few small rocks partially buried here and there in the ground.
Once again this is an area with sun exposure most of the day. Regardless, it seems to have become a pretty good place for a large number of small leaved dwarfs. Witness, for instance, the delightful R. camtschaticum . This location seems to have allowed free rein to its stoloniferous behavior. The rocks probably provide some protection and certainly enhance the appearance of these types of rhododendrons.
During the first few years, in leaving at least some room for growth, the plantings tend to look quite sparse. Remedies include using temporary annuals through the spring and summer and either rhododendrons or companion plants in containers. Containers are easily moved about to put color and mass where you wish. Plants in them appear larger than they would when planted directly into the ground. Finally, when they outgrow the container, they are readily transplanted into the general landscape at whatever time of year may be convenient.
Trees, particularly those most suitable for association with rhododendrons, are relatively slow growing. Unless possessed of unlimited funds for the location, purchase and planting of large specimens, it will be quite some time before they assume their proper scale in the landscape. I don't have a solution to the problem of scale, but have enjoyed planting single specimen cultivars for more variety. There really is a huge number of both evergreen and deciduous trees with which rhododendrons look well. Acquiring as many different species of the former for which you have room adds much to the overall interest in the planting scheme
One of the trees in my landscape is a good example of the go ahead and try it theme. The Acer palmatum shown was growing on the property, but in a location where we could not enjoy it. It had been planted over 40 years ago and was of a size seldom seen.

Japanese maple.
Japanese maple
Photo by Gordon Wylie

After deciding to attempt moving this maple, I waited until January when it was thoroughly dormant. Lower limbs were pruned back to reduce the above ground growth as well as for shaping. I then root pruned well within the drip line by digging a narrow trench down to about 18 inches below the surface and back filled that trench with raw sawdust.
Early the following summer I hand dug a hole at the new location three or four times the size of the anticipated root mass. In the ensuing months I partially refilled this hole with organic material which would ordinarily go in a compost pile. Then, the following spring with the aid of a friend and small bucket equipped Bobcat, the maple was dug and replanted. We finished filling the planting hole with top soil, topped off by a sawdust mulch.
The tree proved quite stubborn to dig and the root area when we finally got it free of the ground wasn't equal to much more than twenty percent of the above ground growth. But it came through a hotter than usual summer with the aid of almost daily watering. In the year following it is apparent this beautiful specimen is established as though growing in its present location for many years.
Rhododendrons are of course far more easily moved. The dwarfs often require no more than a hand trowel and I have moved many five and six foot plants by myself. This relative ease of changing locations is important in the approach to gardening I suggest. Rearrangement to relieve crowding, for better color groupings or foliage consistency and so forth is easily accomplished. Anyway, the rhododendron enthusiast, by definition, will be making changes! Most of what one does can be accomplished with hand labor, and it's a lot more interesting than jogging or lifting weights.
In my experience, three ingredients are key factors in growing healthy rhododendrons. One, certainly, is quick drainage. This is accomplished through elevated planting, gravel or rock in the bottom of the planting hole, generous addition of a loose medium such as coarse sawdust, or a combination of the three.
Secondly, the reciprocal of good drainage, a watering system capable of consistently getting moisture to the root zone throughout the drier periods of the year. Even for established plants, and they can be difficult to water with their greater foliage mass blocking the water, the root area must never be allowed to completely dry out. Frequent watering, that is every other day or perhaps every day, also helps maintain a higher humidity level more closely approximating the plants' native habitat.
Finally, a regular fertilization program enhances overall vigor and bloom. I use fertilizer with trace elements and a higher nitrogen component than the usual commercial mixes for rhododendrons. Application is made two or four times each year starting in the very early spring and extending into July. In some cases, particularly where large amounts of sawdust has been used in planting, I apply nitrogen alone, usually in the form of sulfate of ammonia. The amount applied is varied based upon the plant's size and appearance, the latter being based mainly on leaf observation.
A possible fourth factor deserving consideration is pest control. For example, weevils are a common problem in our area. Spraying two to three times a year has worked well for me in controlling them. Nor do I hesitate to use chemicals for weed control from time to time.

Wylie garden scene.
Garden scene
Photo by Gordon Wylie

Judge for yourself from the pictures, but I like to think we have a pretty good rhododendron collection and that the house is settling into the landscape which emphasizes those plants. I'm still collecting, still working up new planting beds, still extending the irrigation system, still experimenting and, no doubt, still making mistakes. Most of all, I'm still enjoying the excitement these plants display in their marvelous array.
It's no revelation that experience is the best teacher; however, what I advocate really goes beyond that. A bold approach to gardening with rhododendrons will yield some unexpected successes, right out there in your own backyard. So - go ahead; get out there and try it!

Gordon Wylie is a practicing attorney. Gardening is one of several hobbies he enjoys and one that he has given increased attention to for the past ten years. This article was based on a talk given at the Western Regional Meeting, Fall, 1985.