JARS v51n1 - A Dream Called 'Lu Zhu'

A Dream Called 'Lu Zhu'
Ray Talbot
West Vancouver, British Columbia

Let your imagination fly. Picture a dream garden...cradled in a sheltered bowl on a mountain ridge, an idyllic haven for rhododendrons...below, the rushing waters of a mighty river flow steadily towards the sea...across the valley a towering mountain reveals its snowy chasms beneath lofty peaks...an incredible place with mighty rocks and tumbling streams where winding paths lead around rock bluffs and through a series of lovely valleys and glades...here a multitude of rhododendrons shelter beneath towering conifers...sparkling streams and pools reflect their lovely foliage and flowers, and picturesque wooden bridges lead across narrow ravines to a steep fern-covered gully enclosing a raging torrent...a wild place where bald eagles soar, and deer and coyote roam free.

This was the dream of Dr. Michael Bale. Mike came to Canada from England in 1970 and settled first in Newfoundland. He moved to Vancouver in 1973, and then to Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley in 1974. He had grown up in London, England, where, although his family only had a very small garden, his father was a compulsive gardener. Mike recalls how they would go out into the woods to get leaf mould to help lighten the garden's heavy clay soil. During teenage years he visited various great public gardens such as Kew where he feels that the first seeds were planted in his mind for one day having his own great garden.

Mike discovered his dream property one day when out driving along the north side of the Fraser River heading east toward Agassiz. There was a "For Sale" sign posted on a steep forested area on the north side of the road. Something about it caught his attention. He contacted the owner and went to explore. Climbing up the heavily wooded ridge he came to an open area on a massive rock bluff. Pausing for a rest he sat down on a rock overlooking the mighty Fraser River below and fell in love with the breathtaking view across the river to the fertile farmlands of the Fraser Valley with its imposing backdrop of mountains and the awesome chasms and snow fields of Mount Cheam directly across the valley. Hiking back into the bush he discovered an incredible rocky gully. Delicate ferns clung to the steep rock walls and water gushed below. This, he decided, was a very special place. Mike Bale had found the site for his dream garden. After various ideas for cooperative purchase fell through he finally went ahead and bought the property for himself.

It was to be many years before his dream garden would get started, however. Over the years pressure of work developing his medical practice and raising a young family prevented development of the property, which lay some distance from his home in Abbotsford. Then disaster struck when his baby daughter became critically ill. An agonizing period followed. Finally in early 1989 the little girl received her final treatment and Mike took the family to Victoria for a very welcome holiday. During this visit he attended the ARS Annual Convention. Victoria was at its lovely springtime best, and Mike was overwhelmed by the beauty and peaceful tranquility of the gardens that he visited. After the convention he was determined to get a house and start a rhododendron garden of his own, possibly moving to Vancouver Island to do so. The property near Agassiz was too remote to develop as a home at that time, but to make a move he needed the equity in the property. It was put up for sale. When a sale didn't materialize Mike decided to try to clear the land and see what happened.

Mike met a heavy equipment operator, "Bunk" MacLean, who was working on a quarry opposite Mike's land. Mike soon learned that Bunk was a very special person who delights in challenges that others wouldn't attempt. He was just the person Mike was looking for so he enlisted Bunk's aid to do the clearing. The property stretched from the banks of the Fraser River up over the highway and on up the east ridge of Mount Woodside, covering 25 acres. Mike planned to develop the north side of the garden, above the highway. Clearing was not easy, and Bunk got himself into some interesting situations. On one occasion in an effort to cross from one ridge to another he managed to maneuver his rig on one track to bridge the gap. As the work proceeded the full beauty of the property came into focus and Mike realized that this was indeed where his dream garden should be.

Work on the garden went ahead with the assistance of Bunk and several other hardworking friends. Along the way a variety of incidents added highlights to the progress. Mike bought some rock from the quarry where Bunk was working. He planned to use the rock to shore up a high bank at the entrance to the garden. When the rocks arrived, they were so huge and dramatic it seemed a waste to use them for such a job. Steve Craine, a professional landscaper and good friend (he and Mike used to bounce planning ideas off each other), came up with the idea of using the rocks to make a grotto. Now an imposing grotto enhances the entry to one of the lovely bowls that make up the garden.

During a clearing operation the same Steve nearly got roasted when driving a Bobcat to clear some burning debris. The "cat" got stuck and Steve started to burn. They had quite a job getting him and the machine out of the dilemma!

Lu Zhu: the lower garden with
caboose in far background.
Lu Zhu: the lower garden with caboose in far background.
Photo by Glen Patterson

Another situation arose when Mike heard that B.C. Hydro was selling off some old rail cars including a caboose. His young son's first word had been "caboose," so Mike was inspired to purchase one to install on a high rock bluff close to the entrance to the property. The day arrived for delivery but Mike was unable to be there. His wife, Patti, took his place, and Bunk was there to oversee the operation. Bunk had quite a time persuading the driver of the delivery truck to back up the rough entry to the place where the caboose was destined to sit. Eventually he prevailed. A crane was used to hoist the caboose off the truck, but when it was high in the air the crane slipped and the caboose swung wildly out over the highway below looking as though it was going to crash right onto the roadway. Fortunately, they managed to bring it back and into place. Unfortunately it was the wrong way round. It still is! But it has done yeoman duty as a construction shed, and will one day become a guest caboose for visitors.

As the garden started to develop, Mike pondered the question of a name for the garden. He had discovered that the stream that plunged down the land to the river had been named Nevski Creek. On applying to the appropriate authorities in Victoria regarding the meaning of the name, he was told that they had a book of names and had just got to the "N" section. Needless to say, he looked for something else. On early morning drives up the north side of the Fraser River Mike often noticed that there was a beautiful mist over everything, very evocative of the mystery and tranquility that the garden inspired. Mike wanted to discover a name that would convey this feeling. One day he was reading a book on rhododendrons and came across something that seemed ideal; it was the Chinese name for Rhododendron irroratum - "lu zhu dujuan." "Lu zhu" in Chinese means "dewdrop" - a symbol of purity, sincerity, honesty and beauty in China. Mike had found the name for his garden - Lu Zhu.

There was still much work to be done. Planting started in a rush in the summer of 1993. Dave and Ella Crabb were local chapter members who had a wonderful rhododendron garden in the Fraser Valley. They had decided to retire and move to Vancouver Island taking many of their plants with them. However, they couldn't take them all. They called Mike on June 23rd and told him that they had a number of mature hybrid plants he could have if he could move the plants by June 28th. Mike had only a small rough area cleared, and first underground irrigation had to be put in. A wild time followed as Mike and his friends worked feverishly to get the land ready in time. Then four men and a van went to get the plants and a marathon transplant got underway - 200 lovely mature plants were moved into the garden. Mike recalls that he was due to go out for dinner that night too!

This first planting started in the lower bowl. Planting continued and drainage areas were used to construct some pools. A picturesque covered wooden bridge was built to span the waterway filtering through this bowl and lead onto the path that encircles this garden. Higher up the path leads to the massive rock grotto where one can walk through to the higher ground for views of the lower garden and glimpses through the trees to the snow-clad peaks of Mount Cheam. Turning west and going up the trail the garden dedicated to Jack Lofthouse hybrids comes into view. This section is planted with 90 of Jack's lovely hybrids. The path continues up through a lovely wooded glade planted with Rhododendron yakushimanum species and crosses. Close by a side path leads to a rocky viewing platform above the awe-inspiring view of Nevski Creek as it plunges through the sheer rocky gully encrusted with native ferns.

The creek area is reserved for species rhododendrons. Last year Mike began planting some of his McKee species 1 . He has planted about 60 cuttings of these plants alongside the creek and retained about 200 fine big plants which he hopes to make available for the plant sale at the May convention in Vancouver.

A new Asian area went in last summer close to the "house," which is actually a large garage with amenities! An enclosed garden goes around three sides of the lower section for tender plants such as vireyas. Upstairs a vast loft with imposing floor to ceiling windows is used as a living area. Complete with bathroom and kitchenette, it has wonderful views on all sides: awe-inspiring views of the Fraser River to the north, the Fraser Valley and Mount Cheam to the south, a bird's eye view of the lower gardens to the west, a vast rock face, home to a fine group of native plants, on the north side. One day Mike hopes to be able to build his dream house up on the rock bluff above the present building. Right now it is home to his greenhouse and propagating area.

Today the garden is coming alive with a wonderful group of plants. Mike wants to have rhododendrons as his main emphasis, but he has a lovely collection of specimen trees. Many of these, including a fine avenue of ornamental cherries at the top of the garden, have come from his nurseryman friend, Andy Vendrame. Andy has a rather charming form of lease arrangement. He "leases" the trees to Mike for the payment of something like a good bottle of Italian wine presented yearly, and with delightful Italian charisma adds the proviso that if he should want the trees back at any time, he will personally come and dig them up and take them away!

Mike set himself a goal of getting his main planting done by the spring of 1997. This just happens to coincide with the ARS convention. His goal is just about reached. For his next step? He wants to start hybridizing and plans to plant his young plants in a succession of glades going up the ridge. Sometime soon he plans to get Bunk to take a run down the lower section of land that runs down to the river. A wide swathe down there will enable him to plant any overflow in this region as time goes by. The new trail will be 5 feet wide like all the other paths that lead around the property above the highway. Mike is thinking of the future. He hopes that Lu Zhu will be his home when he retires, and one day, maybe, he will need a motorized wheelchair to get around. Meanwhile Mike is looking forward to the spring and to greeting rhododendron lovers to his garden during the ARS convention in May.

1 Dr. C.S. McKee was a doctor who came to Vancouver from Ontario in 1910. He introduced pasteurization to the region. During World War I he served overseas, was injured and invalided out of the service. He went to Edinburgh and met George Forrest. On his return to Vancouver in 1920 he planted seed he had received from Edinburgh and grew it on in his Vancouver garden. He moved to Abbotsford some years later and moved his plants with him. These plants were still thriving in the old garden until a few years ago when the land was purchased for development. Mike, together with two other chapter members, Mike Trembath and Don Martyn, went and checked over the plants. Many appeared to have been cross pollinated, but they sorted out the best and Mike and a nurseryman friend, Andy Vendrame, took cuttings, Andy propagated them, and Mike grew them on.