JARS v48n4 - Beginnings: First Years of the Ted and Mary Greig Nursery

Beginnings: First Years of the Ted and Mary Greig Nursery
Mary Greig

Letter from Mary Greig to Michael Langkammer, written in 1986, was published in the North Island Chapter newsletter in April, 1994

Dear Michael,
My daughter Sue Mouat asked me to write to you and explain the beginnings of the nursery my late husband and I built here [on Vancouver Island, B.C.]. We sold it 20 years ago, in 1966, and Ted died in December of that year.

As we had three daughters it seemed a good idea to become involved in the Girl Guides, and through that movement I met Hilda Leighton in Victoria, her brother Arthur in Nanaimo, and through them the Berkeleys, retired biologists and keen gardeners who lived near the Pacific Biological Station in Departure Bay. So, about 50 years ago we met these kind people and as Ted was madly keen about rare alpines, we were given various gentians and much good advice. Ted never recovered from the alpine attack. In time of course, we found Royston was much colder and wetter than Victoria, and if we must try to grow minute and hairy plants here, it must be done in frames or under glass; either panes propped about and making the garden look like a disaster area, or in an alpine house.

The Berkeleys suggested we visit the Buchanan Simpsons at Cowichan Lake. Over the next few years, until about 1935, we were annual visitors to the Simpsons. Then they decided they would like to settle in either Western Scotland or near Aix en Provence. (Buchanan was a Scot and Suzanne was French.) They felt we were just the people to buy their nursery, which we did - very nervously. They had friends who passed on Rock and Kingdon Ward seed collections; so did Rae Berry who had shares from every collector since about 1920. Flats of these came along too.

For months my husband drove down each weekend and with our son's help hauled back a small trailer piled with pots, flats and plants. Ted was working for Canadian Collieries and Jim was still at school, so I spent the week dealing with the results of their trips.

Apart from what had been a vegetable garden and grass and was now soil, we had 30-odd frames and beds everywhere except in front of the house. The Simpsons didn't realize how much more rain we had during the winter or that we did not have the nice blanket of snow that Lake Cowichan seemed to have most winters. We learned.

The few rhododendrons they had were almost left at the lake, but the Simpsons told us we should find them surprisingly interesting, so we took them on too. Only two or three lapponicums and saluenense had appeared in Victoria at that time and those we had. The rest of the species were unknown to us and the term "rhodo" generally to most of us meant just the old Dutch hybrids. The fact that the Berkeleys had most of the species available at that time was one of the reasons their garden was so interesting.

Over the years as our stock of rhodos increased, I managed to edge Ted away from the various alpine genera which were so obviously unhappy here, and rhodos and other Ericaceae were allowed to become our main interest. By that time we did have some greenhouses in which we grew the very early flowering species and less hardy ones. With the available collected species seed and importing plants from England, we did finally have most of the species hardy enough to grow here on the West Coast.

When we began specializing in rhodos it was thought by both growers and collectors that they did not hybridize in the wild. So for some years the fact that they did so created a good deal of confusion. We stayed as well as we could with the species because the variations of leaves and habit as well as flower shapes, colours and scents made them endlessly interesting.

The Ericaceae generally made very good interplanting, so we collected all of that family, particularly as the same peaty soil and moderate sun and shade suited most things. The only seed we grew was either wild-collected or carefully fertilized and bagged in our garden. And as long as one could ship from England by Blue Funnel we bought plants from the several nurseries there. Some of them had financed Forrest and Rock and we too subscribed to Kingdon Ward collections.

During the 1939-45 war we were reduced to rhodos almost entirely and had to sell or give away large numbers because we simply did not have space enough to keep them. We had a small propagating house with heated beds and intermittent spray jets for cuttings. There were very few species that did not root quite satisfactorily. Lapponicums did better in the open in well-drained, sunny beds, as did heathers. Propagating rhodos became entirely my job. Ted looked after his remaining frames of high alpines and helped get the peat, suitable soil, etc.

Ted made the necessary raised beds in which we grew-on the cuttings when they were old enough to leave the flats in which they spent their first winters. The second winter would be in narrow beds in the greenhouse, unheated except when we tried to keep out frost. Then the third winter they were generally put into long outside beds which were walled with plants and covered with plastic lights with an airspace between the sheets. Everything that was not downright tender did quite well in even severe frost. It was a lot of work, but really quite fascinating. The fun of thrusting one's fingers into the sandy rooting medium in the propagating house and gently lifting out sturdy, well-rooted cuttings is still a very happy memory.

Some years were better than others, of course, and some species much easier to strike than others. One or two series were very much more difficult than the majority, particularly some of the campylocarpums; one form we imported very early in the game I never did root nor did I manage campanulatum - very frustrating.

The nomenclature is all corrected, changed or what have you, and I no longer care enough to try to "keep up." The old species [series?] of rhododendron is the only classification I know, and most of that is rather hazy.

I see Sue suggested a paragraph or two on propagating in the '30s and '40s. I seem to have strayed a bit. Please forgive me - I am a very old woman.

Note: Mrs. Greig lived to take part in the dedication of the Ted and Mary Greig Rhododendron Garden in Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C., in 1989. She died in June 1990.