JARS v45n2 - Nelson Mountain: The Story of a Garden

Nelson Mountain: The Story of a Garden
Clarence Barrett
Greenleaf, Oregon

In the Coast Range Mountains about 35 miles west of Eugene, Oregon, stands Nelson Mountain, traversed by a narrow gravel road traveled by heavily laden log trucks, commuters and local farmers pursuing the shortest route to town. To the west of Nelson Mountain flows Nelson Creek which, fed by its many springs and small tributaries, flows into Lake Creek, thence into the Siuslaw River and eventually into the Pacific Ocean at Florence, Oregon, some 35 miles to the west. Nestled in a tiny valley in the morning shadow of the mountain is a garden, surprising to visitors and consisting of over three acres of rhododendrons and companion plants on the banks of an unnamed but picturesque stream. It has been heretofore known as the "Slim and Elaine Barrett Garden" but will hereafter be called "Nelson Mountain Gardens." Elaine and I will be here but fleetingly while the mountain and, hopefully, the garden will be eternal.

Barrett home and garden
Home and garden of Clarence and Elaine Barrett
Photo by Clarence Barrett

Preliminary work began in 1972 with the construction of a barn with attached greenhouse and a three bedroom, two bath residence overlooking the planned garden site. Several hundred rhododendrons of various sizes were brought from a previous home site near Eugene and heeled in temporarily. Most residents of the West Coast area remember the devastating winter of 1972, when temperatures in our vicinity went to minus 16 degrees F. Fortunately we had about 30 inches of snow so while nearly everything above the snow line was killed, many plants below the snow line suffered little damage. However, most of the large leafed and other tender varieties failed to survive even under the snow cover.
One of the first garden projects was the development of an irrigation system. About seven acres of pasture for the livestock needed irrigation, as well as a fruit orchard, a large vegetable garden and the planned ornamental garden area which we estimated at the time to be about an acre and a half. Needless to say, that area has been extended a number of times since. The system operates from a 10 HP electric pump with three-inch underground mains and two-inch PVC underground laterals. Valves are on a 90-foot grid and each large Rainbird covers a 180-foot circle. About an acre may be watered at any one setting. Irrigation is applied as needed, usually from about mid-June until the end of September. Water comes from a large tributary of Nelson Creek and water rights have been perfected. The system is easily extended as new areas are developed. Water for the residence, barn and greenhouse is provided from a different source.
Soil conditions are near perfect for rhododendron culture on the more level areas with about three feet of sandy loam over many feet of bar run gravel, providing excellent drainage. It is possible to cultivate or till the day after a hard rain. Yet the soil contains sufficient fibrous material without the addition of any sort of additive or amendment. Soil and water tests revealed an ideal pH. It was, and is, still absolutely wonderful to be able to put a rhododendron in the ground any place and watch it thrive without the necessity for any heroic preparation. The gentle slopes were covered with large Douglas fir trees which had to be thinned. While the topsoil on the slopes is not as deep as on the level areas, it is more than sufficient and contains the added bonus of from three to six inches of rich natural compost made up of decayed fir needles and bracken fronds.

View before renovation
View from house before renovation
Photo by Clarence Barrett
View after renovation
View from house after renovation
Photo by Clarence Barrett

From the residence the garden slopes gently to the north and east. A small stream runs immediately below and to the east of the house and divides for about 150 feet, forming an island about 150 feet long by 40 feet at the widest point. Most of the planned garden area was overgrown with alder trees of various sizes, with an understory of bracken fern, salal, wild blackberry, wild salmon-berry and wild huckleberry. A few large Douglas fir trees were distributed throughout and some were left in strategic places. Most other vegetation was removed, the alders because they are very brittle and tend to break easily from wind or heavy snow load, and the understory plants because they tend to proliferate to the point of creating an uncontrollable jungle. Some bracken ferns were allowed to remain or were moved to more appropriate locations. Most of the clearing was done by hand, without the use of heavy equipment, to avoid needlessly compacting the soil or scarring the remaining trees. Brush was burned, reluctantly, as we were not able to afford a chipper to turn it into mulch. The alder trees were of course made into firewood as the residence is heated primarily by wood heaters, although electric heaters were installed at the time of construction and are used occasionally.
An arched bridge was constructed to the island from a large curved Douglas fir log, 20 feet long and about 30 inches in diameter, ripped with a chain saw to form two identical curved beams which were covered with planking. A hand rail was then attached. Walkways were constructed on the island by excavating three-foot wide strips about four inches deep, placing black plastic down to control weeds and moles, edging with used brick, then filling between the bricks with finely crushed gravel about four inches deep. Planted on the island are many large plants of R. yakushimanum , various varieties of R. metternichii , R. bureavii , R. roxieanum v. oreonastes , R. recurvoides , R. makinoi and other indumented species and their progeny, along with a large specimen of Acer palmatum dissectum , the thread leaf maple. Partially overhanging the arched bridge is another delightful Japanese maple given to me many years ago by Jock Brydon when we were moving the Rhododendron Species Foundation plants from Eugene to Salem. The island cries out for development as an oriental garden, but I have a great deal tolearn before undertaking that task. Meanwhile we refer to it as our "Japanese garden" since so many of the species plants are native to Japan.

Island bridge
Island bridge
Photo by Clarence Barrett

Below the island one finds several forms of R. calophytum , all of which are of considerable size, and four forms of R. sutchuenense , including variety geraldii . On the mainland side of the arched bridge is a large plant of 'Crest', alongside specimen plants of R. thomsonii , 'Fred Rose' and R. argyrophyllum . Various plants of the Fortunei series, R. houlstonii , R. fortunei in three different forms, and R. vernicosum luxuriate along the bank of the stream. Eight to twelve foot specimens of 'Loderi King George', 'Loderi Pink Diamond', 'Loderi Queen Mary', 'Loderi White Diamond', 'Loderi Superlative', 'King of Shrubs', 'Susan', 'Crest' and other fine hybrids are nearby. No effort is made to separate hybrids from species in the garden. Plants are placed wherever they remain happy, without regard to color or other status other than size.

waterfall rock garden
Waterfall with R. calophytum
and R. barbatum
Photo by Clarence Barrett
Rock garden

Photo by Clarence Barrett

Farther downstream the creek forms a natural waterfall, colorful but docile during the low water but a roaring monster during flood. It is made up of huge mossy boulders and edged with ancient moss covered tree trunks. The actual fall is probably only eight feet or so, but one could not intentionally have designed a more beautiful setting. But the banks below the fall were so steep and so grown to brambles and brush that it was difficult to see the fall so a viewing bridge was constructed to provide a more intimate view. R. barbatum grows below the waterfall, where it luxuriates in the mist alongside R. rex and R. protistum . Large plants of R. calophytum and 'China' sit above and to the side. From the viewing bridge a backdrop to the waterfall is formed by large specimens of R. auriculatum , R. calophytum x R. sutchuenense (Walker), R. pseudochrysanthum , 'Jean Marie de Montague', and 'Vulcan', with the residence clearly visible in the distance.
Below the waterfall a hundred feet or so the land forms a ridge tapering down about eight feet in elevation to a large level spot beside the creek. The ridge was infested with brambles and vine maple, all of which were removed for the construction of a rock garden. Large moss covered boulders were brought in from various locations on our place, many of them weighing in excess of two tons. We are fortunate in having equipment to handle these heavy loads. The large flat area below the rock garden was planted to lawn, which was edged with rhododendrons and other plants. In the rock garden itself were placed many dwarf rhododendrons, both hybrids and species and a number of hybrids developed by us over the years and unnamed but promising. These include such things as R. yakushimanum x R. haematodes , R. yakushimanum x R. haemaleum and R. yakushimanum x 'Carmen'. This project was substantially completed about two years ago although there is still room for many plants in the rock garden.
Currently under construction is a large slope from the driveway down to the main garden. This area has been covered with large fir trees, which were recently thinned to 20 to 40 feet apart, then limbed to a height of about 60 feet by a professional tree trimmer. Trails were carved in the hillside, then covered with black plastic and crushed rock. We are hoping to plant the entire area to large leafed rhododendrons as they become available. Our good friends from Yachats, Oregon, Jim and Janice Gerdemann, recently contributed a number of fine small plants to this project, including plants raised from seed exchange seed of R. grande , R. macabeanum , R. magnificum , R. montroseanum , R. praestans , R. sinogrande and R. protistum .
The slope is toward the northeast, at the base of a high ridge, affording protection from prevailing winds and weather which are from the southwest. A large grove of undisturbed forest lies to the north, protecting the slope from north winds. Hopefully the good frost drainage, lack of winter sun and protective overstory provided by the firs will permit most of the large leafed rhododendrons to survive in this climate. Obviously another winter like 1972 would destroy most if not all these plants.
In the planning stage is a one-acre miniature arboretum devoted primarily to dwarf, weeping and contorted conifers. We hope to do most of the earth work this summer and start collecting and planting next winter. Our place contains a total of 48 acres, much of it hilly and covered with timber but all of it very beautiful. The potential for nature trails, secluded bowers, view points, meditation sites and so on is limited only by our imagination, energy and stamina. What a wonderful way to spend one's retirement years!
From the residence to the farthest reaches of the garden is a distance of over 600 feet. There are presently over 1,300 rhododendrons and over 600 varieties, about equally divided between species and hybrids. A very accurate map has been prepared with a grid system and all the plants are computerized. Large lawn areas separate the various plantings. Many of the plants are 30 years or more in age and some are 12 to 15 feet tall and as wide. We do not hire help in maintaining the garden so sometimes the weeds and brambles seem to get the upper hand. We then fall back on the term "wild garden" and no one seems to question it. But wild or no, we love our garden and love to share it with those who appreciate natural beauty.
Fortunately the narrow gravel road over Nelson Mountain is not the only access to the garden. We are about two and half miles east of Highway 36 on Nelson Mountain Road. Highway 36 runs west from Junction City, Oregon, and Nelson Mountain Road leaves highway 36 about one-half mile past the little community of Greenleaf. Won't you stop by some time? You'd be very welcome.

Clarence "Slim" Barrett, a member of the Eugene Chapter, is a frequent contributor to the Journal.