Finnerty Gardens has one of Canada's best collections of rhododendrons. Located on the University of Victoria grounds the spectacular garden contains over 4,000 different trees and shrubs with more than 1,500 rhododendron and azalea plants, including 200 collected rhododendron species, and a wide range of companion plants artistically displayed on a 6.5 acre site at the southwest corner of campus.
The Gardens were developed in 1974 when the estate of Mrs. Jeanne Buchanan Simpson of Cowichan Lake was left to the University. She and her husband George, beginning in the 1920's, built up a notable collection of rhododendron species at their Lake Cowichan home. Many plants were grown from seed obtained directly or indirectly from famous plant explorers of the day. Theirs was the largest rhododendron collection in British Columbia. The University decided to move many of the rhododendrons to their campus where they would form the nucleus of a new garden that was created on nearly three acres of land at the south end of the campus.
After the death of her husband, Mrs. Simpson had been unable to maintain the garden properly. The rhododendrons had to struggle for survival without the benefit of summer watering and in competition with the invading "jungle". The Simpson plants were up to 50 years old and presented a challenge to the transplanters. You will recognize these sometimes distorted giants in the Garden today. Most of them are R. decorum or R. fortunei.
The gardens have been carefully planned and developed to provide a rich and changing array of colour, scent, form and texture all year round. In April and May, you will see the rhododendrons at their best. For a plant identification guide and map of the gardens, download a self-guided walking tour pamphlet. For more information about Finnerty Gardens visit their website.
Selecting Rhododendrons For Your Garden
Over 30 years ago I purchased my first rhododendron for a Mother's Day present. I still have a vivid picture of proudly presenting it to my mother on Sunday morning, after selecting it the day before from a local nursery.
Like most beginners I was looking for a big plant with lots of blooms that didn't cost any more than a 16-year-old boy could afford. However, with the passing of time I now realize I was fortunate to have purchased a quality plant without really knowing what I was doing. Today, when I purchase a new variety, several criteria come to mind before I make my purchase. The following general topics are not necessarily in any specific order...but seem to be worth consideration prior to selecting a plant.
Learn about climate. Get knowledge of local climatic conditions, with special attention to the most extreme winter temperature in the past five years. This extreme cold temperature is critical as most rhododendrons sold are rated for hardiness. The hardiness rating is a generally accepted temperature that the plant will endure and survive. Notice: I said the plant...and not the flower buds. The rationale behind plant hardiness is that you can afford to lose the buds on a given year, but not the plant.
Talk to local gardeners. Talk with neighbors and rhododendron club members about varieties that they have had for several years. Discuss with them how frequently the plant flowers, when it blooms, and where in their yard they have it located, i.e., in partal shade, in full sun.
Read about rhodies. Background reading about rhododendrons on the world-wide web or in one of the reference books is helpful. Several of the books have many excellent color pictures. Would recommend any of the following authors as good resources: Van Veen, Greer, and Cox. Each of the authors provides good description of flowers, plant habit, bloom period, and hardiness in a very understandable form.
Visit nurseries. Visit several local nurseries, if available, to view their selection of rhododendrons. Find a rhododendron knowledgeable sales person and seek opinions about varieties that do well locally. Generally, retail nurseries tend to sell "tried and true" varieties that have stood the test of local time. Frequently, your choice will be quite limited in the number of different varieties that are available.
When you have all of the general information identified and are ready to make your selection...that one plant to be located in that special place in your yard...suggest you have the following in mind:
Ultimate Size. How large will the plant be at 10 years of age. Standard varieties are about 6 ft. at 10 years. Semi-dwarfs are about 2 to 4 ft. at 10 years, and dwarfs are about 1.5 ft. at 10 years of age.
Plant Age. Know the plant size you want to purchase. Are you after instant landscape...or are you willing to strat small and allow the plant to go over time.
Location. Know the variety you want meets the conditions of your location, i.e., full sun, semi-shade, etc.
Plant Health. When you make the final choice, the foliage of the plant you select should be green and healthy looking. It should not have burned or spotted leaves. Burned leaves generally result from inadequate water in the summer, or excessive cold in the winter. Leaf spotting typically results from some disease condition. Stay away from lopsided or crooked plants. The leaves should be free of insect damage. Notching around the border of the leaves generally indicates weevil activity. Other insect damage is evidenced by irregular holes in the leaves. If you want the plant to bloom in the coming season, look for large flower buds on some of the branch ends.
Personally, I realize that initially all of the above takes a great deal of time...but your labors dramatically increase the chance of purchasing an excellent rhododendron. All too often we buy the plant with the big open flowers, only later to realize, it was a mistake.
The Cecil and Molly Smith Garden
Cecil and 'Molly' Smith were the founders and developers of what has become the internationally renowned Cecil and Molly Smith Garden. Cecil started collecting rhododendrons in the late 40s at their first home adjacent to the present-day Garden property near Newberg, OR. Cecil was a grass seed grower by trade...and originally owned much of the surrounding land. He became an early member of the American Rhododendron Society in 1947. In 1951 they obtained the garden property, finished their new house and started the garden. The area had been logged in 1915, but by 1951 had reestablished its growth of Douglas fir and native plants.
Cecil had grown up at Champoeg in the Willamette Valley and treasured the native plants. He also became interested in discovering the best genus Rhododendron had to offer. He eventually helped sponsor expeditions to the Himalayas, and participated in seed exchanges and experimented with hybridizing. His efforts were directed at what he thought were the most outstanding rhododendron characteristics: fine foliage and great flowers. A number of his crosses are found in the trade including, R. 'Noyo Brave' and R. 'Yellow Saucer'.
Cecil was very generous with his plants, sharing his cuttings, seeds, and pollen. He wrote articles for The Bulletin of American Rhododendron Society and his photos were used extensively.
Rhododendrons are the Garden's featured plants! Cecil was among the first to grow R. yakushimanum and used it for hybridizing. He was a "leaf turner" and loved the fine indumentum of R. yakushimanum and R. bureavii. He combined these two species and produced R. 'Cinnamon Bear'...the signature plant in the Garden.
The woodland Garden encompasses about three acres sloping gently to the North. Cecil took advantage of the slope and constructed paths that weave from top to bottom of the property. Decaying logs, tree stumps, and fallen limbs have been retained for their natural beauty. This accumulation of 'duff' provides most of the nutrients required and minimal fertilization is required. The Garden is weeded...because Cecil noted: "Unless a woodland garden is weeded, it is not a garden, but a wild area."
Molly's favorites were the Rhododendron 'Loderi' planted near the house and now are over 20 feet tall. Although never taking much credit for the Garden, Molly Smith contributed upkeep and maintenance in the Garden through the years. When the Smiths lived at the Garden, they freely shared their garden with others and hosted many garden tours. No one interested in rhododendrons was denied a visit in the Garden.
Cecil and Molly each received American Rhododendron Society Bronze Medals from the Portland Chapter, the highest award. Molly humorously commented that no one had ever before received a Bronze Medal for baking cookies! Molly was always the gracious hostess, welcoming her guests to her home and garden with freshly baked cookies. In 1967 Cecil was awarded the Gold Medal and in 1985 the Pioneer Achievement Award from the American Rhododendron Society.
In 1983, after more than thirty years of devoted stewardship, Cecil and Molly Smith reached a point in their lives where they could no longer care for the Garden. The Portland Chapter purchased the Garden when the Smiths made it possible by selling their land to the ARS at half of its appraised value. The Portland Chapter, along with the help of Willamette and Tualatin Chapters assumed its care and management. Cecil died in 1998, and Molly in 2007.
The Smith Garden has charmed and delighted visitors from around the world. Edmund Rothschild and his wife have visited the Garden many times along with other well-known Rhododendron enthusiasts. David Leach, author of Rhododendrons of the World, was a good friend of Cecil's, and enjoyed spending time in the wooded setting. Smith Garden has been featured in Horticulture magazine, and in the PBS television show Victory Garden. It is also included in The American Man's Garden by Rosemary Verey. Locally, every national convention of the American Rhododendron Society and Western Regional conventions held in the Portland area included tours of the Smith Garden. Mike Darcy has highlighted the Garden on his television show. Local newspapers and other publications have also included articles and photos of the Garden.
The native Douglas firs create an ideal environment for a natural woodland garden of rare beauty, featuring superior forms of species and hybrid rhododendrons. Complimenting the rhododendron collection are choice trees, shrubs, wildflowers and bulbs. Each pathway reveals its own visual treat...a moss-covered log with plants tucked in the bark crevices, plants thriving on tree stumps, drifts of wild flowers. Cyclamen, Narcissus, Erythronium and Trillium flourish here. The day-to-day work is done by a small group of volunteers with Fall and Spring work parties of the American Rhododendron Society chapters' members and friends.
Designing a Rhododendron Garden
For a rhododendron and azalea garden, plan the empty space first. With annuals or low-growing perennials, one's consideration is with the flower bed...but when plants grow tall...such as rhododendrons...it is much better to plan the open area because tall plants will make walls in your garden.
The open spaces will become "garden rooms". Consider traffic flow from one room to another...either by wide connections or with winding paths. Once you have defined the open areas, you are free to plant everything else...as flower beds! Consider how to treat the various spaces defined in the landscape. Should there be "open spaces" to enhance vistas, "corridors" for transitions between area, "closed spaces" for privacy, or "extensions" of the home interior? Consider movement between areas and access routes.
Design for easy care, avoiding plans that require heavy maintenance or constant pruning. Wide paths are better than narrow walks...since the latter often become tunnels over time. If the soil is poorly drained or plants won't grow easily, choose an alternative...such as mulched areas or slate.
Consider costs, too!
There are basic principles in designing. They are:
Form and Mass. The mature landscape should be in scale with its surroundings. Plants give the garden form, so mass plantings will be more effective than mixed groupings as gardens age. A planting of 5 to 10 azaleas of the same variety will look much better than a mixed planting as the garden matures since the plants will have grown together to look like one large specimen plant.
Line. Graceful and irregular curves are more interesting than straight line and sharp angles.
Color and Harmony. Choose colors and varying leave textures that go well together. Color schemes should be harmonious and compliment each other and any existing architecture.
Emphasis and Contrast. Place light colors again dark ones for emphasis. Include plenty of white and neutral colors to blend or provide transitions. For gardens with brilliant shrubs like azaleas and rhododendrons, it is wise to allow for at least 50% of the plants to be white or other soft tones to allow the eye to have a visual retreat from the more intense colors. In addition to white, pale pinks and yellows...such as those in some of the Knap Hill azaleas like 'Marina' are good blending colors.
Balance and Repetition. Informal, asymmetrical balance is preferred to symmetry since formal designs with shrubs become a liability over time. A large planting on one side of the yard can be balanced with a small but similar grouping on the other. Repeat colors and forms.
Unity. Everything should go together. The garden should enhance the home architecture and the community. Simplicity is desirous...but often difficult to achieve for a plant collector.
Choose varieties that will grow in scale appropriate for the landscape needs. Some azaleas and rhododendrons can be used as ground covers while others will be trees. Use dwarf varieties in the foreground or constrained places. Use large growers in the background or for screens.
Consider time of bloom. Some varieties flower very early and may need frost protection while others bloom late and might require more shade to extend bloom time.
Change the color scheme by selecting plants that bloom at different seasons.
Use many companion plants.
Visit Garrett Park, MD
Garrett Park, Maryland, located 12 miles north of Washington, D.C., is a small town (0.3 square miles of land, with a population of 992) famous for its Victoria houses, trees, and shrubs. The entire town is designated an arboretum, boasting more than 700 species of shrubs and trees, including a host of azaleas and rhododendrons.
Named for Robert W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Garrett Park was laid out in 1887 along the lines of an English village. Much of the town is located in the Garrett Park Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1898 the town enacted legislation to preserve its sylvan setting by protecting its trees and shrubs. In 1977 Garrett Park officially declared the whole town to be an arboretum. Since then the Arboretum Committee has planted hundreds of trees and shrubs, including many rare and usual varieties, to maintain a canopy of shade and to provide color and botanical interest throughout all seasons of the year.
Phil Normandy, an arborist and member of the ARS Mason-Dixon Chapter, works part-time as Garrett Park's tree expert and cares for the 400 trees in the town's public space. Referring to the majestic sugar maples that were planted shortly after the town was founded, Mr. Normandy says, "Trees get better with age and some of these are essentially antiques."
Photo by Al Teich
Garrett Park is well worth a visit, especially in spring when the town's streets are a wonderland of color. Most home owners are avid gardeners and their landscapes are beautifully designed and well-maintained. If you love rhododendrons and azaleas this town certainly has many fine specimens. Put Garrett Park on your list of places to visit!
Gardens East and West
Although my first job was with the rubber plantation industry in the then Federation of Malaya (now West Malaysia), I lived in houses provided by my employer, and had not yet become interested in gardening, and I now regret the opportunities I missed. However, I did fall in love with the people, culture and climate of SE Asia. After 8 years there, politics and personal reasons made it necessary to leave and return to the UK.
I went to Edinburgh, and the first garden of my own belonged to a ground floor flat (apartment) in a moderately salubrious part of the south of the city, only a five-minute car ride from the genetics laboratories where I was working for a Ph.D. The flat had a small garden area outside the front windows, only about 70 square feet, with a manhole cover over a drain access in the middle. Here was my introduction to gardening, a love that has grown over the last 35 years to become a consuming passion. I began (doesn’t everyone with no gardening background) with annuals - quick returns in color and scent. These rapidly lost their attraction, and, in view of my limited space, I turned to alpines. I even made a garden in a cement bowl, to put on top of the manhole cover! I think my rock garden must have been one of the smallest ever, and my enthusiasm for acquiring new plants rapidly outgrew the space available. I can remember working round the garden by torchlight (like most postgraduate students, I was working all the hours there were in the lab) trying to plant something without digging something else up. Also, despite the poor soil and vicious climate, plants persisted in outgrowing their allotted space. Something would have to be done. Fortunately, this episode coincided with the completion of my Ph.D. and submission of the thesis. I could now look for a job.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) offered me a post as a research scientist in its Clinical and Population Cytogenetics Unit (now called the Human Genetics Unit) based in the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. On the strength of the offer, I started to look for a house with a proper garden. This I found about 7 miles south of Edinburgh, in a village called Eskbank. The fact that the MRC unit was on the north side of the city, requiring a commute across the city twice a day, seemed less important than that the house had a garden of nearly an acre, which had been almost totally neglected for about 3 years. The garden was entirely surrounded by a high stone wall, and I immediately had visions of all the exotic trees and shrubs I could grow in that sheltered space. There was also a conservatory on the north side of the house, and a lean-to greenhouse on the south-facing wall of the garden. The climate in that part of the east of Scotland is cold and dry. Frosts can occur in 10 months of the year (only July and August are reliably frost-free) and it has been known to snow in mid-June! Rainfall is low, only 25 or so inches per year, falling mostly in the winter months, and there are frequent cold winds. Temperatures in the worst years, like 1981-82, can go down to -17°C (0°F).
Tall privet hedges (so high they had to be cut from a stepladder) divided the garden internally into three areas. The front garden, to the west of the house, had two broad areas of lawn on either side of the gravel drive, with a broad bed down the north wall. Then there were the "side garden", to the north, and the "orchard" separated from the rest by a concrete path, on the south of which was one of the hedges, with another tall wall on the north. The side garden had a small lawn, but much of the space was occupied by a raised area (perhaps intended for a pool), on top of which 2' X 2' concrete slabs had been laid, alternating with open squares of earth, to make a chess board. Hybrid tea roses had been planted in the open squares, adding further to the Alice in Wonderland effect, though most of the roses had died. The remainder of the garden was largely choked with scrubby Michaelmas daisies (I really don't like most composites). When these were cleared, it revealed a vast quantity of snowdrop and Chionodoxa bulbs, so many they had been pushed out to lie on top of the soil, which augured well for the success of other bulb species.
The raised area was the first to be tackled. Rather than try to remove this structure, I took away the concrete slabs, added quantities of gravel and turned it into a raised bed, to form the center of a rock garden, building up screes and cliffs around the perimeter. I thought that alpines would do well in the local climate. I started with the commoner sorts - Aubrieta and so on, but rapidly became enthused by dwarf bulbs and corms - Narcissus, Tulip, Crocus, Cyclamen, Iris and Galanthus. I also grew a lot of gentians, and primulas, both alpine species on the rock garden, and the beautiful Barnhaven polyanthuses for the ordinary garden beds. Right at the top of the rock garden, against the wall, several species of Juno iris (I. magnifica, orchioides, bucharica) survived for several years, but never increased.
By this time I had been introduced to the Scottish Rock Garden Club (SRGC), whose members were generous both with plants and advice. I am especially grateful to the late Dr Simson Hall, who was not only a keen rock gardener, but also passionate about all flowering shrubs and bulbs, and in particular rhododendrons. It was he who introduced me to the late Euan Cox, founder of the rhododendron specialist nursery Glendoick Gardens, and in turn Euan was happy to take me on guided walks round his beautiful woodland garden outside Perth. My rhodoholicism started with the dwarf species and hybrids grown in and around the base of the rock garden and neighboring areas. These began with the Lapponicums, like R. russatum, scintillans, microleucum, chryseum and hybrids, 'Blue Diamond' and so on, which I was sure would be hardy in the east of Scotland. But I soon (as do we all) began trying to push the limits of what I could grow, so added species like the beautiful R. moupinense (always one of my favorites in all its color forms, white, apple blossom pink-and-white and rose pink) and hybrids like 'Cilpinense', as well as its other parent R. ciliatum, plus the gorgeous R. yakushimanum. You will notice, I am still using the older names - I don't have the energy or mental agility to learn a whole new set! Many rhododendrons, like R. leucaspis and its hybrids, though perfectly hardy in themselves, flowered so early that their flowers were destroyed by frost almost every year.
I planted a whole lot of dwarf conifers, and the ease of these and the dwarf rhododendrons made me consider a suitable plan for the remaining section of the garden - the so-called orchard. This was an area of about a quarter acre containing a few old and diseased apple trees in rough grass, with a row of large lime trees (Tilia europea) down the west border, backed by a brick wall. With the help of Joe Sharp, an ex-coal miner (most of the mines in the district had closed) I cleared the apple trees, trimmed the grass, and erected a chain-link fence across the eastern third of the area. This included a lean-to greenhouse against the south-west-facing wall), and I intended to use this part for fruit and vegetables. The remainder would be a tree, shrub and bulb garden. I had already learnt that herbaceous plants take a deal of care, for which I could not spare the time. I made an exception though for hellebores, as their rich and somber flowers are so rewarding in the depths of winter, and last for weeks. Reading Jan de Graaf's books had fired an enthusiasm for lilies, and I was growing many of these, as well as rhododendrons and other plants from seed. Much of the seed came from the various seed exchange schemes - Alpine Garden Society, SRGC, ARS and so on, but I had also collected berries of many Sorbus species from the arboretum at Westonbirt while on a fall holiday. These were very successful, and fruited early and regularly, as well as providing fine fall color.
My rhododendron collection had already expanded to include all the Cinnabarinum and Triflorum species and hybrids I could find (I believed these would be best suited to the climate, and I love the Cinnabarinum flowers and foliage), as well as several clones of R. edgeworthii (the only reliably hardy Maddenia). I even tried some of the large-leafed species like R.fictolacteum, but they were never happy, even when I could give them a shady position. Just too dry for them. However, a number of Thomsonii species did well in the shade of the lime trees. These included the lovely bowl-shaped R. soulei and R. callimorphum and the yellow R. wardii in several forms. In the open areas I planted all the sweet-scented deciduous azaleas I could get - R. prinophyllum, R. nudiflorum, R. viscosum, R. luteum and R. atlanticum, and as many clones of R. occidentale as I could find.
Then Graham Stuart Thomas's books on shrub roses started me on another collection (especially of the yellow species and near-species like 'Canary Bird', R. ecae, R. X cantabrigiensis and so on), and I got keen on willows, and Camellias and Rubus and tree and herbaceous peonies and honeysuckles, and, and...You know how it happens. Anyway, after about 5 years the garden was getting pretty full. The walls were almost completely covered, with a Mermaid rose having the north-facing wall to itself -the thorns were too vicious to try any pruning: once inside their clasp and you would never escape! The fruit and vegetable section was also well stocked by now - a peach and a nectarine in the greenhouse, and espaliered apples, plums and pears along the wall, strawberries and raspberries (very successful in Scotland) as well as gooseberries and blackcurrants, and even some exotic varieties of potato.
The conservatory on the north side of the house proved ideal for seed raising, but had insufficient light and ventilation for my alpines and bulbs. I built an alpine house (using the concrete slabs taken from the rock garden as footing) in the side garden. This had the great advantage that I could be dry while caring for my plants, and the summer dormant bulbs could be left to bake in comfort if I had to go away. Two hot dry summers, and correspondence with the Aril Group of the American Iris Society (by snail mail - this was before the days of email for everyone) encouraged me to try some of the desert irises of the Oncocyclus group. I built two raised frames (stealing ground from the vegetable patch) and got plants from Israel. The flowers were spectacular, huge things in reds, purples, browns and silvers, with a few pinks and yellows, and they did wonderfully well for a couple of years, but then the weather pattern reverted to its normal showery dull cool summers, and they gradually rotted away. A few of the Regelio-Cyclus hybrids survived for another 9 or 10 years, but never flowered at all freely and when I moved house into town, I gave them to friends in the south of England, who I hope have had better luck with them.
The bitter winters of 1981-82 and the following year, which felt as if we were entering a new ice age, and killed many of my more tender plants, made me realize the problems of commuting in snow and ice. This, plus the cost of heating a big Victorian house, caused me to seriously consider the possibility of moving into town, and I finally surrendered two years later.
The next garden was a reversion to an ordinary suburban plot, though with more space than my very first garden. I moved in a snowy January, with the ground hard frozen. Despite this, I tried to move some of my hellebores and the smaller rhododendrons, and even hunted for the more precious bulbs, though the earth had to be broken with a pickax! I managed to salvage some of the better things, and they sat in the garage until the earth thawed sufficiently to let me plant them. It took a couple of years for me to adjust to the small space, and I still kept bringing home shrub roses that outgrew their space in a season! Eventually I was back to dwarf rhododendrons and bulbs, with my surviving hellebores in among them. One of the most successful rhododendrons was 'Dora Amatais', which flowered regularly every spring, with flowers that withstood several degrees of frost.
This was the period when I started visiting gardens seriously, as my own took less time to care for. There are many gardens in Scotland and England, both privately and publicly owned, open either year round or on specific occasions, and nearly all are worth a visit. I took holidays in the west of Scotland, in Argyll and Sutherland, visiting places like Glenarn, Arduaine, Gigha and Benmore (an outpost of the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, RBGE), and later started going to Ireland, particularly the southwest, Cork and Kerry. Here the summer climate was perfect, the landscape idyllic, and the gardens spectacular, and I resolved to look for a house with some land for my retirement. I was encouraged by visiting gardens like Ilnacullin (Garinish) in Glengarriff harbor on Bantry Bay, where the Maddenia rhododendrons scent the whole island in May and June. Fota, near Cork City has a fine arboretum full of tender trees, and Dereen, on the Kenmare river, north of the mountains between Cork and Kerry, has tree ferns better than I have seen them anywhere since the Cameron Highlands in Malaya!
I moved to my 200-year-old farmhouse, with 3 acres of rough bog and grassland 50 miles west of Cork city, in June, towing a trailer full of plants in pots and plastic bags. It was raining when I arrived, and the wind was a cold north-eastern. It barely stopped raining and blowing for the remainder of the year. I managed to get some clearing and planting done round the house, but the bog-land behind the house, with a stream running through it, which I had planned to drain and plant with trees, opening the stream into a pool, remained too wet for any machinery to get in there. The gales steadily increased in frequency and violence, and at Christmas so many trees and power lines were brought down that I was without electricity for 5 days. Fortunately I had a gas cooker, but for water I had depended on an electric pump from my 100 ft well. My neighbors to the west were farmers, with a generator for their pump and milking parlor (this is a dairy-farming district) and supplied me with water by the bucket, as well as inviting me to share their Christmas meal. Good people.
The following spring continued the same pattern of weather, and, having come here to escape the cold of Edinburgh, I felt I had wasted my time. I decided to cut my losses and head back to SE Asia, where I knew I would be warm. Malaysia has changed a great deal in the 30 years since I left, and I knew something of Thailand, so decided to try there instead. That was more than 3 years ago, and I am still here, and still content.
The climate here in Phuket, while similar to that of Malaya (a further 500 miles south) is very different from that of central and northern Thailand, as well as from Europe, and some westerners (farang as they are called here) find it unbearable. It is hot, and, for much of the year, humid. Daily temperatures range from a minimum of 20°C (68°F) in the cooler season (January) or 25°C (77°F) the rest of the year to a maximum of 35°C (95°F), or, on one or two days last month, 37°C. For comfortable sleep you need air-conditioning, but we don't find we need it during the day, unless we have visitors.
We get rain all year round, with peaks in the monsoons in May-June and September-October. During the monsoon seasons we get occasional days when it rains all day, but most of the time even then we get heavy rain showers (sometimes with thunder and lightning) interspersed with warm, sunny periods. Outside the rainy season we get a heavy rain shower once or twice a week - enough to keep everything growing well. Even when it rains, it is never cold! The annual average rainfall is about 90 inches, and we get around 8 hours sunshine a day from November to May, falling to 4-5 hours a day in the rainy season. Further north they have a different climate, with distinct wet and dry seasons. They only get half as much rain as we do, but it all falls between May and October. In the wet season they have floods, and in the dry season the hills burn, lit by sparks from burning rice stubble, carelessly thrown cigarette stubs, charcoal burners' fires, picnickers or even deliberately set, to clear forest for planting. In the wet, it is hotter than here, with temperatures sometimes passing 40°C (104°F), while in the dry it can be cooler than here. In the high mountains of the north, temperatures at night in January can occasionally go down to near 0°C, and frosts are not uncommon. However, the general run of night time temperatures on top of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest peak at 2565 meters, 8000+ feet) don’t go much below 7 or 8°C (46-48°F) though that feels very cold after living in the south!. Daytime temperatures in January run up to 20-30°C (68-86°F) and in July go very much higher.
The soil here is abominable - sticky clay on top of broken laterite rock. Phuket was a major tin mining area, and most of the housing developments are built on the spoil from the mines, with the dredge pools converted into ornamental lakes and water reservoirs. Despite this, it probably won't surprise you to learn that any plants that tolerate our climate and soil grow VERY FAST. I have grown coral trees (Erythrina) from seed sown in January 1999 that are already 20 feet high, with a canopy as much across. Peacock bushes (Caesalpinia) also from seed sown at the same time, have to be cut back every 3 or 4 months and this only stops them flowering for a matter of a week or so. Fiddlewood trees (Cytheraxylon) from 12-inch cuttings are now 12-15 feet tall and covered with tassels of sweet-scented white flowers, loved by sunbirds (the Old World version of humming birds) and huge birdwing butterflies. I could extend the list, but you get the idea.
The ideal rhododendrons for this climate are, of course, the Vireyas, but there is not a single nursery in Thailand that supplies them. Mind you, that is not such a surprise, because the general run of nursery stock is limited to the standards - Bougainvillea, Canna, Allamanda, Hibiscus and assorted palms. The one garden in Thailand that grows Vireyas in quantity is the royal arboretum at Mae Fah Luang, right up on the northern border with Burma. Their plants (some 20,000) were all imported from Australia, but they tell me they do have plans to propagate for sale in a year or two. My plants have also all been imported, from nurseries in Australia, Oregon and Hawaii. I am very grateful to those who have been willing to take on the hassle of dealing with Agriculture Departments (described by one nurseryman as "Gestapo") to get phytosanitary certificates for export, in return for small orders.
I am pleased to say that nearly all of them have survived the trauma of the journey and are alive and growing well. They are all in pots, and I have to consider what to do when they outgrow their containers. The best plan will probably be that used by Mae Fah Luang, where they plant them in shallow saucers, spreading the roots out, and covering with a mulch of pine needles. Here we might have to substitute Casuarina leaves for pine needles, as there are no local pine trees. In the pots they grow in a mix of coconut fiber chunks with perlite, pumice and broken brick - very free drainage! I have also tried a few of the Thai native species, which all grow on the northern mountains, at upwards of 1400 meters. Some have survived and are growing, like R. arboreum, R. lyi, R. simsii and R. surasianum, but others are looking unhappy (R. moulmainense), and some (R. pachypodum) and non-natives (R. nuttallii) have already died. They survived, and even opened new leaves, until the heavy rains started in May, when the leaves started to brown and fall, so it seems to be the humidity that they don't like, not the heat.
However, I now have some 40 Vireya hybrids and species, all growing well and apparently healthy, apart from the depredations of a particularly nasty beetle, about 1-1½ inches long, yellow and gray, which loves to chew holes in newly emerging leaves. There is also a rather unpleasant caterpillar, only ½ inch long, that sticks the leaves together while they are in bud, and lives happily inside, eating away, until the outer leaves open, and reveal a mess of dying leaves inside, and a dead terminal bud. If terminal buds are going to get removed to encourage branching, I prefer to do it my way! I don't really bother much about ordinary caterpillars; they don't do a lot of damage, and they are going to turn into the lovely butterflies and moths that decorate the garden. Some of the caterpillars are quite spectacular in their own right; those of the Atlas moth (a huge cinnamon, pink and silver beast, with a wingspan of more than 8 inches) are about 6 inches long, and a glistening silvery-white. They feed on the leaves of the torch gingers, Etlingera, which always have more leaf than flower!
Other plants that have proved successful are all the Bauhinias I have tried: B. purpurea, B. variegata (in several color forms) B. acuminata, and B tomentosa (only the plain yellow one so far, but I hope to get the two-colored one eventually). My favorite so far is a form of B. variegata of which I collected seed near Mae Sai, on the northern border with Burma. It has pure white flowers with a pink flare on one petal, very strongly and sweetly scented. One of the many attractions of the Bauhinias is that they flower within a year from seed.
I also grow about half a dozen different jasmines. I love all scented plants, and the jasmines are among the best. I am still looking for seed of Jasminum revolutum (humile), the shrubby yellow scented species. I have a lot of climbers (including some of the jasmines) and one of the best is Odontadenia which has long creamy yellow buds, opening to 6-inch trumpets, apricot in the lobes and peach-orange in the center, with a beautiful scent.
Several Passiflora species also do well, and Quisqualis (Rangoon Creeper), with flowers that open white and change to red, needs to be kept in check. Scented shrubs include several Gardenias, Murraya paniculata (Orange Jasmine, Chinese Box) and Wrightia religiosa, as well as a lovely small tree, Millingtonia hortensis with the dull name of Indian Cork Tree. This really ought to be called a tree jasmine, as it has 3-4 inch long tubular creamy white flowers, with a delicious scent.
Pests other than those I have mentioned are fairly few, though fungus diseases are always a risk in the high humidity. There is a rust that attacks the frangipanis (Plumeria) but doesn't seem to bother anything else, and a pink and white fungus that grows on the stems of Hibiscus mutabilis, as well as some that cause leaf-spotting on several species (Phytophthera?). There are other pests that bother people of course - mosquitoes (only at night out of doors) and the odd snake. We had a 5-foot cobra in the garden yesterday morning. The dogs had cornered it and were barking their heads off, and the poor beast could not get out through the dog-proof wire netting. A pity, as we had to kill it (it made a meal for some neighboring gardeners), and I prefer to live and let live. Snakes don't bother you if you don't bother them, and it was only its inability to escape that made it a danger. So all in all, Phuket is a very satisfactory place to garden, though I would like to be able to grow some of the more temperate rhododendrons, and the deciduous azaleas. Still we always hanker after something we can't grow, otherwise we would be moribund, if not dead!