JARS v59n3 - Raising Plants for an ARS Convention: A Potting Party

Raising Plants for an ARS Convention: A Potting Party
Donald W. Hyatt
McLean, Virginia

The three ARS chapters in District 9 decided to join forces with the Azalea Society of America to host a joint Annual Convention in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C., in May of 2006. Our thoughts immediately turned to the plant sale since we wanted to showcase rare plants and new introductions from our region. Since these varieties are not generally available from commercial sources, we decided to propagate them ourselves.
The convention was less than three years away, so we didn't have much lead-time. For rhododendron cuttings, we opted for the custom propagation of Van Veen Nursery in Portland, Oregon. Our District 9 gardeners like Paul James in Roanoke, Virginia, were extremely generous. He alone took over 1,000 cuttings from his favorite plants including many rare Delp, Haag, and Gable hybrids. We gathered choice cuttings from other sources too and sent them off to Kathy Van Veen in the fall of 2003. We had no idea where we would grow these plants, but at least we had some rhododendrons on the way.
Native azaleas and rhododendrons are of particular interest in our area, so we collected seed from rare forms that we had observed in the wild, and sowed them under lights in February of 2004. By spring we had many robust seedlings on the way, including babies from the famous 'Curtis Creek Red Max'*, a most unusual form of Rhododendron maximum with red flowers and red sap, a solitary plant discovered on the slopes of Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, near Curtis Creek. We had seedlings from a "red" R. vaseyi discovered near Mount Pisgah, North Carolina, and excellent forms of R. calendulaceum from the Roan Highlands too. We decided those would make excellent gifts for convention attendees.
It was the summer of 2004 and less than a year had elapsed since we had agreed to host the convention. We now shifted focus to azalea cuttings and sought new varieties developed by our local hybridizers. We could root those ourselves, and soon I had several thousand cuttings, nearly 150 choice varieties, under fluorescent lights in my basement. By September, we had finally reached a crisis point. Kathy Van Veen was waiting to ship us those well rooted rhododendron cuttings, but my driveway could no longer handle the expanding convention plant sale. We needed a bigger home. Fortunately, Harry Weiskittel kindly offered us space at his Marshy Point Nursery, a large wholesale operation near Baltimore, Maryland, and we said, "Thanks!"
We arranged a "potting party" at Marshy Point on a Saturday in October and asked for volunteers. We appointed people to bring the supplies: bales of peat moss, bags of perlite, and two pickup trucks filled with ground pine bark fines. We brought pots, fertilizer, labels, markers, and, of course, those rhododendron plants. Nearly thirty people converged at Marshy Point that morning, and some had traveled great distances. Frank Pelurie had driven 400 miles one way from West Virginia just to help!
Former ARS President Ed Reiley demonstrated how to pot those cuttings, emphasizing the root ball must not be planted deeply. He had provided expert advice on the potting medium too, a porous but well-drained mix of approximately 1/4 peat, 1/4 perlite, and 1/2 pine bark fines. We mixed that medium as needed on a large tarp spread out on the lawn.

Potting party at Marshy 
Point Nursery
The potting party at Marshy Point Nursery, preparing plants
for the 2006 ARS Annual Convention plant sale.
Photo by Donald W. Hyatt
R. 'John C. White' Red-flowered R. vaseyi
'John C. White', a local rhododendron introduction
propagated for the convention plant sale.
Photo by Donald W. Hyatt
Red-flowered R. vaseyi , one of the native azaleas propagated
by seed for the convention. The seed was collected in the wild.
Photo by Donald W. Hyatt
R. 'Caitlin Marie' R. 'Curtis Creek Red Max'
'Caitlin Marie', a new local azalea hybrid propagated for the convention plant sale.
Photo by Donald W. Hyatt
One thousand seedlings of R. maximum 'Curtis Creek Red Max' for the convention.
Photo by Donald W. Hyatt

We divided our volunteers into teams of three to four people and asked that each group work with only one crate of plants at a time, double checking variety names and making sure each plant had two labels before getting additional plants. With one label in the pot and one wrapped around the stem, we hoped to avoid losing variety names in the months ahead.
By lunchtime, we had nearly finished potting up the cuttings and people were busy alphabetizing plants in the frame house. We gave each pot a teaspoon of a 13-13-13 slow release fertilizer to replace nutrients consumed by the decomposing bark, and watered everything well.
We then started transplanting the rhododendron seedlings, and by mid afternoon we were done. Everyone was amazed at the number of plants we had potted up that day, nearly 1,300 rhododendron liners and more than a 1,000 seedlings too.
It was hard work but we heard no complaints. In fact, everyone had a great time. Of course, the perfect weather that day plus the lovely setting of Harry's nursery on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay certainly helped. The wonderful camaraderie that developed with our volunteers made us realize that the potting party was a great team building activity, bringing together people from many chapters to work as a single unit. We intend to maintain that sense of cooperation as we stage the rest of the convention. We could have probably sold the entire lot just to our volunteers that day, but decided we should wait for the convention plant sale like everyone else. Besides, we needed time to clear out those tired old hybrids in our gardens so we'd have room for all those exciting new varieties.