JARS v46n3 - Two Puget Sound Gardens: Arthur Zabel's Rhodies

Two Puget Sound Gardens: Arthur Zabel's Rhodies
Bart Ripp
Tacoma, Washington

In a lush Olympia backyard more than a thousand bushes bloom a springtime invitation to anyone who'd like to share the beauty of Zabel's rhododendrons. Robins, red and bold, visit this northeast Olympia home each May. For all our power and knowledge, we can only speculate what these robins think, what leaps through those tiny brains when they alight in Arthur Zabel's backyard.

Robins flutter through the foliage to find thrushes and woodpeckers, cedars and cypresses, deer and raccoons, an occasional skunk and one ceramic chipmunk leaning against a sign that reads: "Howdy folks. Welcome!"

Whoa, Nellie, the robins remind themselves. This is not your regular backyard, with hammocks and barbecues, maybe a satellite TV dish embracing the heavens. Throughout the robin world, on robin radio and in gossipy nests, word may be spreading that Arthur Zabel's backyard is unlike any other in the state of Washington. Arthur Zabel's backyard, whether you are robin, human or just plain skunk, is a rhododendron wonderland.

Zabel garden
Zabel garden
Photo by Orpha Piserchio

In this four-acre retreat, Arthur Zabel, assisted by his wife, Peggy, has created a great grove of nature. The Zabel backyard is home to more than 1,200 rhododendrons, bursting with color each spring in a festival that celebrates the state flower and something more important. No cause is promoted here. No admission to this special place. Few mentions in guidebooks. Few crowds to ruin this pastoral pleasure.

"I like sharing flowers with people. That's it," said Zabel, a short slender presence who is dwarfed by his accomplishment. He transformed a hazelnut orchard into an extraordinary haven.

Zabel is a familiar name to Olympians. The Zabel family, including Arthur and his father, Ed Zabel, owned a series of movie theaters. The Ray, built in 1909. The Acme, the Lyric, the Strand. The mighty Capitol, built in 1924. The Lacey Drive-In, now site of a Fred Meyer store. The Sunset Drive-in, razed to make way for Tumwater's city hall.

When Peggy and Arthur Zabel bought their house in 1959, the backyard contained frost-damaged hazelnut trees. The owners had an orchard that got froze out," Arthur Zabel said. "People said they lost their nuts." "I dug out the stumps. It was a tough, tough job. We didn't want anybody building behind us, so we had to buy all four acres. Alders and blackberry bushes grabbed control of the acreage. Zabel, who said he had never bought a plant, bush or tree in his life, let the alders and blueberries go - until 1967, 25 Mays ago, when Zabel's life changed. He went to a rhododendron show at Tacoma Mall and became smitten by this splashy plant.

"The only time Peggy and I ever noticed rhodies was on Mother's Day," Zabel said. "We used to take our mothers for drives out to nurseries in Morton or Shelton." Soon after seeing the rhodies at Tacoma Mall, Zabel drove to Rochester and bought two rhododendrons from George and Marie Betz at Hillside Nursery. The rhodies were 'Halopeanum', an early-blooming variety of tall, conical white trusses flushed with slight pink, and a distinctive deep red called 'David'.

"I got bit," Zabel said. "And I made mistakes. Planted varieties in the sun that should have been in the shade, and the other way around. I took out all the alders and blackberries with a bulldozer. That was tough."

"Then I really got serious." Zabel joined the Olympia Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. He began driving to Brinnon to consult with Bill Whitney, who owned a riveting six-acre garden and nursery that still thrives along Hood Canal. He began planting acres of rhodies and azaleas. He covered the ground with lily of the valley, oxalis, wild violets and a particularly fragrant strain of woodruff.

The rhodies had regal names, like 'King Oluf' and 'Prince Albeit' and 'Queen of Hearts'. They were named for places such as 'Point Defiance' and 'Puget Sound' and 'Mount Everest'. They were named for exceptional rhododendron growers such as Gwen Bell in Seattle; Sir Edmund Loder, the British hybridizer; and Cliff Cannon, an Olympia High School teacher who raises rhodies from seed with a partner named Jim Bowie.

Then there is a creamy white rhody with a pleasing fragrance. It recently was registered with the American Rhododendron Society with a singular name - 'Peggy Zabel'.

Fifteen years ago, Arthur Zabel decided to share his backyard. He opened the thickening thicket to the public, asking only that people stay on the modest trails he marked with arrows and signs thumb-tacked to the trees. Signs request no running, no dogs and no children without adults.

Zabel loves children, as long as they don't go wild in the woods. His pockets bulge with Brach's butterscotch and a Canadian roll candy called Smarties. He loves to offer closed fists and ask children to guess which hand holds the candy. Surprise! Both hands have candy.

Zabel greets visitors from his garage, where he asks everyone to sign a guest book. Zabel's gardens, visited by 850 people in 1967 attracted 6,500 people from 47 states and 25 nations in May 1990. "So many people love flowers but can't get out and work in their gardens," Zabel said. People also get lost if they don't follow the arrows. Zabel will come running from the garage if he hears the cries of people who have taken the wrong turn in this labyrinthine backyard.

In June, after the rhodies have bloomed, Zabel spends two hours every morning dead-heading the spent blooms. After the flowers have gone to sleep and the crowds have gone home, robins will find an elfin presence quietly walking these woods. Sometimes, Arthur Zabel doesn't do anything in his backyard except wander and wonder.

"I just can't believe I did all this," he said. "It shows that if you keep at it, you can do a lot."

Bart Ripp is the weekly garden columnist for the Tacoma News Tribune.