JARS v56n3 - Hardy Rhododendrons in Seward, Alaska

Hardy Rhododendrons in Seward, Alaska
Don Ennis
Seward, Alaska

Some seemingly well-informed people today still think the state of Alaska is a land of perpetual ice and snow, and there are even some seasoned gardeners who would never believe that rhododendrons grow "up there." It's not easy, but rhodies do grow in several places in Alaska and one of them is in my backyard in the small, coastal town of Seward.

Seward is located 125 miles south of the city of Anchorage on Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. Because of its more southerly location and site at the head of one of the few ice free bays, it does not get the sub-zero winter weather found in Fairbanks and the north, nor the three-month-long winter nights found in Nome and Barrow. Still, many plants do not adapt to Seward's weather. We get a heavy rainfall of 60 plus inches (150cm) annually, high winds year round and winter weather characterized by blowing snow and freezing rain storms. Usually all ground surfaces are covered with several inches of ice. Another difficulty is that winter begins when the ground freezes about the middle of October and ends near Memorial Day in May. Thus the growing season is short. We get very long periods of daylight from May through July and very short periods of it from November through January. Rhododendrons don't appreciate such long periods of enforced dormancy and dehydration from frozen ground. Yet there are a few hardy varieties I have found that are actually thriving here.

Don Ennis garden in Seward Alaska
Don Ennis garden in Seward.
Photo by Don Ennis

It wasn't that long ago I took up gardening as a pastime. For years I worked in construction and much of the time my "home" was wherever the job was. But in 1989 I bought a house and decided to try my hand at landscaping and gardening. I really like rhododendrons so I looked through the Greer Gardens catalogue (Eugene, Oregon) and picked out a few varieties with a USDA Zone 3 or colder hardiness. The varieties growing well here are: 'Nova Zembla' ('Parsons Grandiflorum' x dark red hybrid); 'Mrs. Furnivall' ( R. griffithianum hybrid x R. caucasicum hybrid); 'Ramapo' ( R. fastigiatum x R. minus Carolinianum Group); and 'Mrs. T. H. Lowinsky' (combination of R. catawbiense , R. maximum , and R. ponticum ). I chose the largest plants they sold, thinking that the bigger and stronger the plant the more chances it would have of getting established to make it through the winter. I have a summer greenhouse so at first I planted a few of them there, and they did fine, but eventually I decided to try them outside. Because of the cold, windy winters, I planted many of them on the south-facing side of the house right against the house for protection from the high winds. Also, the ground doesn't often freeze adjacent to the house. Later on I found out that acid-loving rhodies usually don't do well next to a cement foundation. Apparently that's been the least of their worries. As you can see from the photo, they are thriving in that environment. I do side dress with Miracid (30-10-10 with trace elements) each summer. I also have large plants growing well on the east and west sides of the house, adjacent to the house. I have tried planting a few plants away from the protection of the house, and they definitely are smaller, puny and seldom bloom.

One of the greatest dangers to these rhododendron plants is from our local moose population. Picture this: It is the dead of winter, the ground is covered with ice or snow, not a single leaf is on any of the natural vegetation, and a moose wanders into the yard. She discovers, just over the 4-foot (1.2m) fence, a banquet feast of succulent looking plants covered with delicious green leaves! It is no trouble at all to hop or even walk over the fence and start munching. Twice I have had all of my rhodies decimated and pruned by moose down to about 1½ feet (0.5m) high. Moose have turned out to be the biggest threat to rhody livelihood winter or summer in my yard. Naturally, I took steps to protect the plants. Some winters the yard has resembled a war zone with plywood walls and barriers built 6 feet (1.8m) high all around each group of plants to protect them from marauding moose. (I have also used these barriers to protect rhododendrons planted on the east and west sides of the house from the winter winds.) One day I discovered a young bull right at the back door munching contentedly, so I attempted to chase him away using first a b-b gun, then tossing small stones, lengths of firewood and a couple of plastic pails at him. He had already claimed that portion of the yard as his own territory and he ended up chasing me back into the house. Another time I called the Fish and Wildlife Protection officer for help, and he informed me that I had created an "attractive nuisance" by planting such delicious looking plants in my yard and there really was nothing he could or would do. Just last year I found Plantskyd, a natural blood derivative product developed in Sweden for use in protecting plants from deer browsing, and when I sprayed it on the plants late in the fall, it was effective in keeping moose away from the plants all winter long. I now have a large supply of this wonderful stuff.

Having these beautiful shrubs in my yard has been a challenge and a joy. They are gorgeous when in full bloom and create quite a stir when knowledgeable gardeners discover rhododendrons growing so well–in Seward, Alaska!