JARS v46n3 - Two Puget Sound Gardens: Point Defiance

Two Puget Sound Gardens: Point Defiance
George Ryan, Orris Thompson, E. White Smith
Tacoma, Washington

The Rhododendron Garden at Point Defiance is part of a park occupying 640 acres at the tip of the peninsula on which much of Tacoma is located. The park includes large areas landscaped with lawn, shrubs, trees and flower beds, a rose garden, a Chinese garden, a native plant garden, and an outstanding zoo and aquarium featuring exhibits of Pacific Rim birds, fish and mammals in naturalized settings. Although most of the park is surrounded by bluffs extending a couple of hundred feet above the waters of Puget Sound, there is access to a stretch of sandy beach for swimming and picnicking. Salmon bakes are held there on several summer evenings.

Pt. Defiance garden, Wasco,
Pt. Defiance
Photo by Jean Minch

Beyond the open area and zoo near the main entrance to the park, about three-fourths of the park is a mostly undisturbed virgin forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, and big leaf maple, with Pacific madrone abundant along the bluffs above the water. A five-mile drive takes the visitor through this forest, with several turnouts to viewpoints. Looking north across the water is Vashon Island, and northwest is Gig Harbor with its fleet of fishing and pleasure boats. The last views on that drive are west toward the Tacoma Narrows and the graceful Narrows Bridge, which in 1946 replaced the famous "Galloping Gertie" that collapsed in a high wind. From there the drive continues to a Never Never Land for the kids, a rebuilt Fort Nisqually with its stockade and frontier museum, and a logging exhibit including an historic railroad car logging camp.

The Rhododendron Garden is situated on about six acres in the forested area, near the start of the five-mile drive. It was established at its present location in the late '60s when the existing garden was moved to make way for zoo construction. A large, sturdy, open-sided shelter was built about 15 years ago in one corner of the garden by the Tacoma Chapter members with the help of the park department. The Chapter meets there each June for an annual picnic and work party.

The Point Defiance Rhododendron Garden was planned for very low maintenance. Many of the plants were placed at least 50 feet apart with the idea they could become established and be left undisturbed indefinitely. Only a little supplemental water is needed to establish new plantings, after which they thrive in the rich woodland soil.

The garden receives minimum maintenance by the park department, mostly in the form of mowing of the major pathways and occasionally some brush and bramble removal. All of the deadheading and pruning and most of the weed and brush removal is done by the members of the Tacoma Chapter, and that has been sporadic, to say the least. Evidence of our last severe wind storm still remains in the form of some uprooted large trees. Where they do not interfere with movement along paths and roads, the downed trees are left to decay where they fall.

Despite this lack of detailed attention, there are about 250 healthy, vigorous, large plants of many of the old hybrids, and 45-50 species plants. There are also a number of unnamed hybrids from Ben Nelson, Hjalmar Larson and Cecile Seabrook, plus donations from Chapter members and other interested people. Many of the plants bloom very well. On others the flower bud set is disappointing, probably mostly due to excessive shade because of restrictions on tree thinning and removal. As the result of a series of work parties by the Chapter during the past year, the garden is cleaned up and labeled much better than it has been for several years. The plants are looking good and they have bloomed well this year.