JARS v55n1 - Unused Land Becomes a Rhododendron Garden

Unused Land Becomes a Rhododendron Garden
Bob Kintigh
Springfield, Oregon

Over the past thirty-five years my wife, Margaret, and I have converted a blackberry and brush patch into a rhododendron garden with approximately 700 different species and hybrids. The garden is on our farm, which is called "Kintigh's Mountain Home Ranch" and is located in the McKenzie River Valley east of Springfield, Oregon. Let's talk about the rhododendrons first and the farm later.

How did we become interested in growing rhododendrons? In a way it was quite natural because Margaret is a botany graduate and I am a professional forester; therefore, we were already both plant lovers. It was largely through two friends, Edgar Greer, the father of Harold Greer, and Palmer Saunders who were both well known to rhododendron lovers in this area and are fondly remembered to this day. I can't remember with certainty from which one I obtained our first plants. I do, however, have an old invoice from Greer Gardens showing prices ranging from seventy cents to two dollars per plant. We still have some plants we got from these two wonderful gentleman.

Some of the rhododendrons form the landscaping for our ranch-style house but most are either in the area that was once a "blackberry jungle" along Cougar Creek or on parcels of land that did not fit into the farming plans after we sold our cattle.

The Beginnings

Initial plantings began in the early 1960s, but raising five children and getting the tree farm and nursery going necessitated putting the garden on hold until about 1987. By then the children had left home and two of our sons had taken over active management of the Christmas trees and nursery. Also by that time the blackberries, brush and weeds had taken over to such an extent that we lost a number of the original rhododendrons. In western Oregon, blackberries grow so rapidly that they can cover up a barn or machine shed in a few years. First, the earlier plantings were rejuvenated and then clearing was begun for expansion of the garden up along the creek. Blackberries were sprayed and then bulldozed out and burned the following year. Native trees and brush species (Himalayan blackberries are not native) such as vine maple ( Acer circinatum ), Indian plum ( Osmaronia cerasiformis ),cascara ( Rhamnus purshiana ), California hazel ( Corylus cornuta californica ) and spreading snowberry ( Symphoricarpos mollis ) were retained because they produce wildlife food. The Indian plum is one of our favorite signs of spring here because although unnoticed most of the year it is the first to show its fresh green leaves in the fence rows. We also thinned the alders and maples along the creek but realize now that we did not remove enough of the trees and therefore some of the rhododendrons became weak and spindly. This situation has since been partly corrected by having an arborist high prune the trees.

The Swamp

For about two-thirds of the length of the garden the creek flows through a swamp that is 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 m) wide. There are a lot of huge yellow skunk cabbage ( Lysichitum americanum ) plants in the swamp. We're always amazed at how many visitors who upon seeing the skunk cabbage exclaim excitedly, "What's that?" Margaret and I have always considered it a somewhat common and ordinary plant although we enjoy seeing its unique flower open very early in the spring. The leaves are 2 to 3 feet (0.5 to 1 m) long. Skunk cabbage is in about the same category as a prophet without honor in his own country because here it is a lowly plant, but visitors to gardens in the British Isles will see that designers use it effectively around ponds and streams. The American Indians used the roots as food. Much of the swampy area has been taken over by the non-native blackberries and reed canary grass. Presently we are trying to eradicate these two species and it appears that as we get rid of them the skunk cabbage may occupy the space they formerly occupied. We are also planting some baldcypress, which is deciduous, in the swamp for summer shade to replace the alders and maples when they die or fall down.

Skunk cabbage swamp and raised mound
for dwarf rhododendrons
Skunk cabbage swamp and raised mound for dwarf rhododendrons.
Photo by Bob Kintigh

The Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons were planted along both sides of the swampy area and in beds in the odd corners of land with grass paths separating them. There are over a half a mile of paths and seven wooden bridges. When rhododendrons are planted very close to the edge of the swampy area and there is a question about whether there is adequate soil drainage, a semicircle of field stones is built and filled with soil and organic matter to raise the plant above the water table. Field stones, which are abundantly present, are also used to make terraces on steep slopes to provide a spot for planting the rhododendrons.

With several exceptions, no attempt was made to group the plants by color or botanical classification. While there might be much merit to arranging the plants in this fashion, I could never figure just out how I could do it since I did not know at the time I started what kinds of plants I would be planting or how many there would be of a certain color or group of plants. We just started at one end of the garden and planted plants as we acquired them. Like Topsy our garden just grew. Shade requirements were taken into account whenever possible. Always an effort was made to allow adequate growing space based on expected future size. A 50-foot (15 m) long mound was constructed to provide suitable sites for dwarfs such as Rhododendron 'Carmen', R. 'Ethel', R. 'Wren', R. proteoides and R. calostrotum ssp. keleticum Radicans Group.

Since the project was revived, planting has taken place at the rate of forty to one hundred plants per year. Some losses have occurred - mostly during the first few years after planting . Moles account for 90 percent of all mortality even with a continuous trapping program. Although we have many deer on the farm they have not been a really serious problem. They may nip some of the azaleas and azaleodendrons and occasionally will severely damage a rhododendron by rubbing it with their antlers when they are trying to rub off the velvet.

Kintigh's Mountain Home Ranch
Kintigh's Mountain Home Ranch, McKenzie River Valley, Oregon.
View up north path showing Christmas trees and timber in background.
Photo by Bob Kintigh

The Trees

Most, but not all, of the garden has some shade for part the day. This comes from bigleaf maple ( Acer macrophyllum ), red alder ( Alnus rubra ), black locust ( Robinia pseudoacacia ), Douglas-fir ( Pseudotsuga menziesii ) and western red cedar ( Thuja plicata ) that were present on the site. Black locust is the most satisfactory of the above in spite of its sprouting habit. This is not a native Oregon tree but was brought here from the east by the early settlers and was widely planted in both eastern and western Oregon around their homesteads. The maple is the least desirable because it produces so many very heavy large leaves which smother the small rhododendrons and the grass. Maples are also prolific seeders and almost every year thousands of small maple trees must be removed. The fifty-year-old alder trees have reached the age of declining vigor and frequently drop branches. I consider larch ( Larix spp.), baldcypress ( Taxodium distichum ) and dawn redwood ( Metasequoia glyptostroboides ) much more ideal cover for a rhododendron garden than broad leaf trees. I am planting these because they provide a light summer shade and being deciduous they allow full sun in winter and spring. Also, there is no heavy litter to smother small leafed plants.

The Irrigation and Labels

Most of the plants are watered with a drip irrigation system rather than by sprinklers because we have a limited water supply and because this method results in fewer weeds. Water from a pond at the lower end of the garden is pumped through a 3-inch (7.5 cm) mainline. Half inch (1.3 cm) plastic lines branch off this line and wind among the plants. One eighth inch (0.3 cm) plastic tubes inserted into this line carry the water to the spitters near the base of each plant. New plants are given two spitters for the first two or three years. Plants under coniferous trees may also be given extra spitters. The spitters must be checked periodically to be sure they are not plugged or have been kicked out by the deer, but problems are fairly minimal. The last couple years we have had summers with no beneficial rain for two to three months but most of the plants did well.

Nearly all plants in the garden are labeled with a 2 by 3 inch (5 by 7.5 cm) zinc metal plate on a 1 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch (3.8 by 8.8 cm) western red cedar stake. The top corner of the stake is cut on a 30 degree slope to provide a sloping nailing surface for the metal plate. This makes the names easy to read. Stakes are 16, 24 or 32 inches (40, 60 or 80 cm) tall. Names are written on the metal plate with a weather-proof pencil and commonly last eight to ten years. The writing on the tags is renewed before it reaches the point of being illegible.

The Favorites

Some of the older and larger favorite plants are: 'Beauty of Littleworth', R. decorum, 'Scintillation', 'Blue Ensign', 'Beau Brummell', 'Anah Kruschke', 'The Hon. Jean Marie de Montague', 'Jan Dekens', 'Anna Rose Whitney', 'Vulcan', 'Unique', 'Cynthia', 'Aunt Martha', 'Taurus', 'Sir Charles Lemon', 'Swamp Beauty', 'President Lincoln', 'Hallelujah', 'Trilby'*, 'Blue Peter', 'Gomer Waterer', 'Elizabeth', 'Cadis' and 'Arthur Bedford'.

The garden has mostly medium to late blooming plants because we have chosen these over earlier bloomers. We hate to lose blossoms from late frosts. Current and future planning will feature mostly new Northwest hybrids.

R. 'Blue Pacific' in the back yard.
'Blue Pacific' in the back yard.
Photo by Bob Kintigh

The Conifers

Throughout the garden and in adjacent areas we have many rare or unusual conifers including a number of weeping forms. There is also an arboretum with over thirty true firs ( Abies spp.). Many of these firs come from the same parts of Asia which were the source of hundreds of the rhododendrons we all grow. An interesting sidelight is that although rhododendrons grow very well in the Northwest there are only four native rhododendrons in this region.

On several Sunday afternoons in May we hold "open garden" for friends or anyone interested in rhododendrons. People are free to wander the paths or I will conduct a guided tour if requested. While the blossoms are the main attraction at that time of year, I try to show people that there are other features of the rhododendron plant that are also very interesting such as colorful new growth, indumentum on the leaves, and the great diversity of plant size, leaf size and flower size.

The Holding Area

A few years ago we built what we call our "holding area." It consists of two raised beds filled with a mixture of ground bark with a small amount of peat moss. The entire area can be covered with shade cloth when needed. The original use was to develop a better root system on our plants before planting them out in the garden because we learned that we cannot successfully transplant rhododendrons from gallon or two gallons containers or any plants with a small root system into our heavy clay soil. Newly acquired plants are put into the holding area for a year or two until they have developed a large spreading fibrous root system. The area is also used as a "hospital." Ailing plants in the garden are moved to the holding area and later planted back into the garden if and when they recover vigor. A more recent use of the holding area has been to grow on small plants purchased at ARS plant sales or plants that I have rooted from cuttings taken in our own garden. These plants will be used to donate to ARS plant sales or given to Habitat for Humanity for landscaping homes that are built for needy people.

The Christmas Trees

There are many other things to see at our ranch. There is over an acre of greenhouses in which we raise over 1.5 million containerized conifer tree seedlings a year. Besides supplying our own need for seedlings, these trees are sold to landowners large and small for reforestation purposes. Some are also sold to Christmas tree growers and to the ornamental nursery trade for liner stock.

There are fields of beautiful Christmas trees. Our principal Christmas tree species is now noble fir ( Abies procera ) but we also produce Turkish fir ( Abies bornmulleriana ), grand fir ( Abies grandis ), Douglas-fir and Scotch pine ( Pinus sylvestris ). In 1992 we grew the National Grand Champion Christmas tree and had the honor of providing a tree to the White House for the Blue Room. Fifteen members of our family made the trip to Washington D.C. After presenting the tree to Mrs. Bush we had a fifteen minute private meeting with her in the White House. She is indeed a gracious lady. Latter we had our picture taken with President and Mrs. Bush.

Forest Management

Forming a backdrop for the garden are many acres of beautiful Douglas-fir forest managed for the production of timber products on a sustainable basis. The older stands of trees have been thinned four times since we started managing the stands in 1957. At that time the trees ranged from 2 to 5 inches (5 to 12.5 cm) in diameter and today the average tree is 20 inches (50 cm) in diameter at breast height Because of the management practices we use, the quality of the remaining timber is very high. Periodic harvests are made when market conditions are satisfactory. Management practices include replanting with follow-up brush control, providing wildlife habitat, erosion control, soil fertility conservation, road maintenance and control of aggressive non native species.

Professional and school groups, including foreign groups, often tour the farm. We are looking forward to having many of the ARS Annual Convention attendees visit our garden and farm.

NOTE: Tree names are in accordance with "Checklist of United States Trees," U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

* Name is not registered.

Bob Kintigh is a forester, forest land manager and former Oregon State Senator. He is the immediate past president of the ARS Eugene Chapter and plant sale co-chairman for the 2001 ARS Annual Convention.