JARS v57n1 - Commentary: A Different Display Garden to Teach Different Lessons

Commentary: A Different Display Garden to Teach Different Lessons
Susan Clark
Concord, Massachusetts

The temptations for a chapter to have a display garden are substantial, especially the opportunity to educate the public about our favorite genus, Rhododendron . Display gardens, however, take money and considerable volunteer time and cannot be undertaken lightly.

The Massachusetts Chapter has for fifteen years had an extensive, ambitious display garden in a lovely wooded setting. A few years ago our land's owner suddenly started selling off pieces of the property and cut off our water supply. We anguished about the fate of this garden, lamenting the years of hard work that had gone into it (not to mention the financial outlays), the huge plants that were in jeopardy and the lovely garden vistas that were threatened. When it became clear that we could not keep a garden there, we were confronted with a difficult decision: should we simply abandon that garden or find a new location for a garden?

An offer came from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of a plot at their new headquarters, a mere sixth of an acre of gently sloping, sunny land. No deep woods and beneficial high shade suitable for a rhododendron garden. However, there were no large trees that we would have to tend, no exuberant jungle of wild growth to encroach upon our plants. This would be a very different garden - small, tame, manicured and sunny. Not a place for the usual elepidotes, either. If the chapter thought it could find the money and manpower, we could install a very different educational and even surprising garden. We considered our chapter mandate to promote and promulgate. We gulped and signed the new contract.

Some of us were quite inspired by the prospect of offering to the public a garden that had almost no large-leafed, traditional rhodies. After all, New England is a fine place to grow many other sorts of rhodies: small-leaved lepidotes, species azaleas, and season-extenders like Rhododendron mucronulatum , R. dauricum and R. prunifolium , as well as the Weston Nursery summer-blooming azaleas hybrids. The gardening public doesn't automatically think of any of these when it thinks "rhododendron," but these are all wonderful, useful plants that deserve a spot in most gardens. What could be more educational and beneficial than to educate the public about them by putting them on display in an attractive, public garden? The new garden site, so unsuited for elepidotes, is quite suitable for this different task.

Our new garden is not yet finished, but it already has over a 120 "rhodies" and only a handful are the familiar large-leaved ones. Our first bloom should come in early April and the last summer-blooming azalea will be in August. Fall will provide another dazzling display of color as the deciduous azaleas fluoresce before dropping their leaves; some of the lepidotes will show brilliant red or yellow on their shed leaves. Even in winter this garden will be lovely and distinctive, full of bronzy or purple foliage.

Visitors to the still unsigned garden have been astonished when told this is the rhododendron garden. "But these plants really are all rhododendrons," we explain again and again. "And they will grow and bloom where the big-leaved ones would struggle. They are all sun-lovers, thriving where the elepidotes would burn; they are more wind tolerant. Many of them are more compact than most elepidotes and will suit the scale of smaller locations. Some offer early or late bloom or winter color. There is a rhododendron to suit almost every site in New England." We educate as we plant. The public needs to learn about these other rhododendrons and our unsuitable site is the perfect place for that education.