JARS v56n2 - Towner Crest: Collectors' Garden Par Excellence

Towner Crest: Collectors' Garden Par Excellence
Bill Dale
Sidney, British Columbia

Sonja Nelson
Mount Vernon, Washington

Ten acres of Pacific Northwest woodland with towering Douglas firs is a wondrous sight. Stolid trunks reach straight for the sky to form a canopy of deep green. Osprey and eagles soar above the treetops, looking for perches. Sunlight trickles through the branches in dappled splendor. In such a woodland on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Evelyn and Nick Weesjes built their garden, Towner Crest. Yet for all the glory of the trees, the shrub layer in the Weesjes' garden draws the visitors - and rightly so. Here 3,500 rhododendrons grow in the shelter of the woodland, replacing much of the rambunctious native shrub layer such as salal and trailing blackberry. The conversion of seven acres of the ten acres of native shrub thicket to a rhododendron garden is a major accomplishment by the Weesjes. A second, ongoing accomplishment is the maintenance of a garden of such scale. A third accomplishment is the development of the rhododendron collection itself - a collection of many highly regarded hybrids and, especially, good species forms.

Waterfall at Towner Crest
Waterfall at Towner Crest, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Photo by Bill Dale

The origin of the garden lies not on Vancouver Island where it exists today but in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia. In the early 1950s, Ted and Mary Greig of Royston, British Columbia, donated 1,000 rhododendron species to the university, a collection soon augmented by exchanges with other botanical gardens. As a result, Nick Weesjes, head gardener for the physical plant of the university grounds, raised thousands of species seedlings. Once the seedlings matured, however, the staff realized the plants were not the species they were thought to be. To deal with the problem the university joined with the Rhododendron Species Foundation in 1964 to raise species from cuttings from Britain. The Rhododendron Species Foundation in Tacoma, Washington, was restricted from importing plants from Britain, but Canada faced no such restrictions. The cuttings were sent to the University of British Columbia, rooted by Nick and Evelyn (née Jack) Weesjes (Evelyn was a propagator for the university's physical plant), and sent across the border to Washington. In payment, the university kept cuttings of each species for its own collection.

The Weesjes became widely known for their propagation skills. In a letter from Mary Greig to the supervisor of grounds at the university, she wrote, "If Nick and Evelyn can't get results, no one else is likely to."

Besides species, the Weesjes became interested in new hybrids from Washington, most notably those of Hjalmar Larson of Tacoma, who gave the university fifty crosses to grow on. Some of the cuttings taken from these plants are now mature plants in the garden.

The Weesjes' professional expertise in propagation and knowledge of the genus Rhododendron laid the foundation for their own collection. In 1972, they bought ten acres of "just bush" in the Municipality of North Saanich on Vancouver Island - ten acres of woodland with 80-year-old trees and no roads. When they retired from the university in 1981, they left the university a legacy of plants they had propagated, many of them planted in the David C. Lam Asian Garden at the university. But they took with them their expertise to build their own collection at Towner Crest. At first the collection was kept at Evelyn's parents' home - a "couple thousand" by the time they were ready to move them to their permanent home.

Driveway at the Weesjes' garden.
Cherry trees, rhododendrons and primulas line the driveway leading to the Weesjes' home.
Photo by Bill Dale

The Garden Plan
"The garden is not landscaped. The trees are everything," Evelyn said about the landscape plan - or lack of one - for the garden. While the garden owes its design to the trees, open areas for viewing plants from a distance and paths for viewing plants close-up create a unified whole. On the unimproved site, a swamp afforded one large open area, where the house was built. The driveway approach to the house descends through dense woodland down to the house and its surrounding lawn. From both the back and the front of the house, lawn areas create long-range views across grass to mixed borders and dispel any feeling of claustrophobia. The plantings in the borders and other beds near the house display not only rhododendrons but also the Weesjes' wide collection of other plants - trees, shrub s, perennials, annuals and bulbs. Among these are: Acer palmatum 'Shishigashira', Stewartia sinensis , Styrax, Prunus , hostas, hydrangeas, ferns and lilies. Most of their various forms of Rhododendron degronianum ssp. yakushimanum are planted in these mixed borders.

Seven acres on the 10-acre site are planted. With the exception of the central open area described above, the garden consists of paths winding through the trees and the rhododendrons, creating a stroll garden on a grand scale. Strollers can view flowers, foliage and plant form at close range. One of the many surprises in this garden is the labeling - each plant is identified by label! In fact, when the Weesjes host tours, they put special visitor tags on them. Although some of the native shrub layer has been removed, garden-worthy plants such as the native Philadelphus lewisii (mock orange), Vaccinium parvifolium (huckleberry), Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) and Polystichum munitum (sword fern) were kept. A few sections have been allowed to naturalize. In several spots along the stream primulas have self-seeded among the ferns and moss, and in a shady ravine ladyferns, primulas, epimediums, umbrella plant and natives co-mingle to create a lush groundcover. In fact, two such scenes are featured in Ann Lovejoy's recently published book Naturalistic Gardening .

In the beginning, the Weesjes planted the rhododendrons in groups by series (the classification system in use at the time), but, according to Evelyn, "They didn't look right." The plan was abandoned. In general, the species and hybrids are planted in separate groups of plants that simply look good together. For instance, a group of big-leaf rhododendrons is planted in one well-protected spot. The determining principle governing sitting of plants, however, is performance. If a plant needs more shade, more sun, better drainage or more wind protection, that plant is moved to a spot where it will perform better. The result: a garden of well-performing plants.

Building and Maintaining the Garden
In building the garden the Weesjes had to consider two major climatic conditions: very wet winters and dry summers. Rainfall is 35 inches, mostly falling between November and April. To deal with the wet winters, Nick undertook the grueling task of digging drainage ditches to carry excess water to a main stream running through the property. To deal with the dry summers, he built an irrigation system that sprayed each plant at its base. The improvements to the site - removing underbrush, limbing trees, ditching, irrigating and improving soil - would be difficult for a small garden. For a 7-acre garden, the task was formidable indeed. The key, Evelyn said, was that Nick tackled one acre at a time.

Planting the rhododendrons, once a portion was improved, was the final hurdle. The "couple thousand" plants stored at Evelyn's parents' home had to be transported to the new garden. The collection included many large specimens. Many of these had to be winched onto a truck and unloaded onto a cart at the garden. If a plant did not fit on the cart it was put on skids to drag to the site. One acre at a time, the garden was improved and the rhododendrons planted.

R. 'Transit Gold'
'Transit Gold', a cross by Dr. S. Holland.
Photo by Bill Dale

Maintaining a garden of seven acres also turned out to be a formidable task - primarily Nick's task, says Evelyn. For instance, watering the whole garden once takes three days between turning the valves on and then off again. During the driest months, Nicks spends most of his time doing just that.

One indispensable tool at the garden - besides a mattock - is a shredder. In the work area are large piles of various types of shredded mulch Old fern fronds prove to be a particularly good mulch when shredded. Shredding and spreading the mulch is just one of the ongoing tasks of maintenance.

R. 'Tony Schilling'
'Tony Schilling', a form of R. arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum var. roseum .
Photo by Bill Dale

The Collection
Among the 3,500 rhododendrons are some of the best species forms and hybrids. Two fine forms of Rhododendron calophytum grown by Ted and Mary Greig and James Barto thrive in the garden. The Greig's form of R. strigillosum is another rare plant. 'Tony Schilling', a form of R. arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum var. roseum , is a coveted plant, with its pink flowers spotted with crimson. Rhododendron davidsonianum 'Ruth Lyons' is a fine form of this species. Other outstanding species include R. micranthum , R. oreotrephes , R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada' and R. cinnabarinum ssp. xanthocodon Concatenans Group.

R. 'Clayoquot Warrior'
'Clayoquot Warrior' ( R. strigillosum x 'Essex Scarlet'),
a Hjalmar Larson cross.
Photo by Bill Dale

Among the many fine hybrids are crosses by Hjalmar Larson grown on and named by the Weesjes: 'Nellie Timmerman', 'Elze Weesjes', 'Bill Dale', and 'Dave Dougan'. 'Clayoquot Warrior' ( R. strigillosum x 'Essex Scarlet'), also a Larson cross, was named and registered by Ken Gibson. Two old English hybrids, a red blooming plant of the Tally Ho Group and the late blooming 'Aladdin', thrive in their garden. Historic Northwest crosses include the well-known British Columbia hybrid, 'Transit Gold', a cross by Dr. S. Holland, 'Whitney's Yellow'*, a cross by William Whitney, and 'Grace Seabrook', a cross by Frank Mossman.

Evelyn says she is not a hybridizer but did make a "spur of the moment" cross of 'Van Nes Sensation' and 'Mrs. Horace Fogg' from which two named plants resulted: 'Nick's Choice' and 'Towner Crest'.

R. 'Nick's Choice'
'Nick's Choice' ('Van Nes Sensation' and 'Mrs Horace Fogg'), a cross by Evelyn Weesjes.
Photo by Bill Dale

A Visitor's Garden
Members of the ARS and the local gardening public are well aware of the treasures in the Weesjes garden. During the 1989 ARS Annual Convention in Victoria, 700 people visited the garden in one day, with three busloads of members strolling the garden at any one time. Hundreds of people visit their garden each year, including visitors beyond Vancouver Island. The garden is also available to charities for fund-raising tours. Not uncommonly, visitors walk the paths unbeknownst to the Weesjes. Besides the generous sharing of the garden with the public, the Weesjes invariably display trusses at the Victoria Rhododendron Society spring show.

The Weesjes garden, therefore, is no secret to rhododendron gardeners - even beyond the shores of Vancouver Island. Not only have two persons singlehandedly managed to build a garden and develop a rhododendron collection rivaling many public collections but also have willingly shared it with others.

The garden will be on tour at the 2005 ARS Annual Convention in Victoria.

* Name is unregistered.

Bill Dale is a member of the Cowichan Valley Chapter and Sonja Nelson is a member of the Komo Kulshan Chapter.