JARS v54n4 - Dedication of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea Display Garden

Dedication of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea Display Garden
Bob Dunning
Maple Valley, Washington

On June the 9, 2000, the South King County Arboretum Foundation marked a milestone on a four-year project with the dedication of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea Display Garden. The dedication is a significant moment for those of us who have worked so long to make it happen.

In 1996, the future of that portion of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea collection held by Britt Smith in Kent, Washington, suddenly became doubtful. Drought a year or so earlier had caused Britt's well to run dry. At 80 years of age, Britt found five acres of rhododendrons without irrigation had become more than he wished to manage.

I became aware of the significance of the collection only because his son, Gary, lives in my housing development. My friend, Dan Bailey, and I had a few rhododendrons and were just starting to get involved at the Rhododendron Species Foundation. We were not really aware of the size of the collection, or of the size of the individual plants in the collection. I can remember taking Dan over to see Britt's garden and telling Dan about the situation.

So often, west and by while the world changes for the worse. So often we are helpless to prevent catastrophe after catastrophe. There is great sadness and frustration in that helplessness. There is great joy when something can be done. Dan proposed that we do something to save the Smith-Mossman collection. Knowing the facts might have kept us from attempting. Only four years of step-by-step experience could possibly educate us to the enormity of what we decided to undertake.

We started with nothing but "let's do it!" in the second half of 1996. We had no idea where we were going to put the collection. We had no idea how we were going to move the plants. We did not even know if the plants would be available. It was Britt's hope to sell the property to a rhododendron lover, with the collection intact. Instead, the property was bought overnight by a developer. Inquiries at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden made it clear that there was not room at that garden for this rather large collection. Dan and I live in the Maple Valley area of the Puget Sound region and had been active in an evening garden club there. Through the club we were aware of the South King County Arboretum, one of the least known public gardens in the world, or even in King County, Washington. Dan and I talked and talked before we finally hit upon this garden as a possibility.

The South King County Arboretum has forty acres, most of it second growth Douglas firs, on the shores of Lake Wilderness. It has existed since 1965, making it almost as old as the Rhododendron Species Foundation. It has, however, had a far different course of development.

When Dan and I made our pitch to the Board of Directors of the South King County Arboretum Foundation there had been little new development in the arboretum for a number of years. Available cash flow was minimal and the display gardens and trails were in decline. Most member activities centered on the annual spring plant sale. Income from the plant sale had accumulated a small cash reserve.

We learned all this as we sat waiting to make our pitch. It was better than I had hoped. They had the physical resources and we had the project they needed to galvanize the organization. Our presentation was very well received. This was the first of many partnerships (and many friends) that we have made over the last few years.

We were lucky. So many circumstances could have prevented the realization of this project. Before we knew that we would receive Britt's plants, we decided to take cuttings of all of them. The RSF provided the facilities and support to allow us to do that. The developer gave us access to the plants on the Britt's old property. Dan and I spent days slogging around in the rain and sticking cuttings.

When the wetland mitigation plan required the removal of the "alien plants" (also known as the Smith-Mossman collection) the developer called us. We assisted the developer in removing all of the various evergreen rhododendrons, deciduous azaleas, hybrid seedlings, named hybrids, and species from Britt's property. The majority of these plants were sold in plant sales. Some are being used to landscape the development. The developer is receiving a tax deduction for the donated plants. We believe that this is far better than the more usual practice of bulldozing plants that are in the way.

R. occidentale at the Smith-Mossman display garden
New plantings of the western azalea ( R. occidentale ) at the Smith-Mossman display garden.
Photo by Steve Hootman

When the task of moving the plants off the property started to seem impossible, Dan Kiefer showed up with his backhoe and cheerfully started popping plants out of the ground and onto the trailers faster than any team of volunteers could keep up. When the deadline to get the plants out started creeping up on us, King County Parks sent men with trucks to transport the plants. The developer assigned a monstrous excavator to lift the monstrous western azaleas out of the wetland and gently place them on the driveway where Dan Kiefer's front-loader could sweep them up and away.

Dan Bailey and I became deeply involved in the workings of the South King County Arboretum. It was necessary to smooth the adoption of the collection by the foundation. Possession of the Smith-Mossman collection is a responsibility over and above anything the South King County Arboretum Foundation had done in the past. Having a collection means tracking what is in the garden. Having the Smith-Mossman collection means undertaking to make information and plants available to the public, to gardeners, and to science. The foundation had never taken on anything like that in the past.

Bill Paine, the immediate past president, worked to ease the organizational transition. He still leads the Property Management and Development Committee. Others have come forward to help in the task of shaping the new foundation. Cindy Ostermann, a local garden club dignitary, became our first vice-president. Bill Sloan of B&J Rhododendron Nursery is our new second vice-president. Dan Bailey is now treasurer of the foundation. Many others are with us on the board, in the working committees, and as volunteers.

Any public garden relies heavily upon its volunteers. The South King County Arboretum Foundation has no employees. This makes volunteerism critical for the very existence of the arboretum. What makes volunteers different from employees is that they take their pay as intangibles. If the work is not fun or important, it will not happen.

We were lucky. The work was fun. The work was important. There was a minimum of disagreements. Everyone pitched in.

Since the arboretum is on county land, working with the supporting foundation means working with the county. It has meant endless persistence and patience in finding the right contacts, filling out the right forms, and somehow finding our way through the maze of government requirements and offices. When it all seemed impossible Terry Higashiyama, a ranking employee of the county, showed up and was our sponsor and promoter through all the difficulties. We were able to secure a very desirable site for the Smith-Mossman Display Garden immediately adjacent to the Lake Wilderness Center, on property not traditionally part of the arboretum. The exposure is perfect. The soil is good (and getting better). There is considerable public traffic as people bicycle, jog, or walk their dogs on the trails. We receive compliments from people whenever we work in the garden. It is such a pleasure to watch gardeners apply their expertise to a common project. Sometimes we have planning meetings in the garden and pull weeds or deadhead while we talk. We were lucky.

Dedication of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea 
Display Garden at the South King County Arboretum
The new owner of the Smith property, Britt Smith, and Jean Smith attend the dedication of
the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea Display Garden at the South King County Arboretum.
Photo by Laura Kentala

On June 9th, 2000, we dedicated the display garden. Britt and Jean Smith attended with their descendants. The logo on the plaque was taken from a design created by Jean Smith. Various government and garden dignitaries attended the dedication. The Seattle Rhododendron Society was well represented, as was the Rhododendron Species Foundation and the Chinook Garden Club District. The South King County Arboretum Foundation received a grant of $12,500 from the new City of Maple Valley. A grant of $10,000 was received from King County Parks.

For this year and for next year I am the president of the South King County Foundation. I have that time to try to establish the foundation under its new orientation. Last year a committee created the new vision statement for the South King County Arboretum Foundation. It is my goal to foster that vision, hopefully a vision that will support the South King County Arboretum (and the Smith-Mossman collection) into the indefinite future. I would be worried except that I have the support of numerous very fine people and of numerous very fine organizations.

The work on the garden continues. We are now racing against the weather to install irrigation emitters in the display garden. Every once in a while I call up Dan Bailey and tell him: "Here's another fine mess you've got us into!" But I have no regrets. This has been a great adventure.

Bob Dunning is a member of the Seattle Chapter.