Two Lovely Ladies
Two of my favourite rhododendrons were named after two ladies - Mary Fleming and the Countess of Haddington. I have no idea what the namesakes of these varieties were like in life, but if I had to guess about them based on the plants bearing their names, then they both must have been lovely ladies, but altogether different.
I picture Mary Fleming as having been a dainty, petite lady who had a spine of steel. She must have been very pretty too. Rhododendron 'Mary Fleming' is such a good "do-er" in the garden. My own plant is in a fairly tough spot that gets full sun for most of the day and is often very dry in the summer. However, Mary Fleming grows well there and rewards me with lots of small pinky-yellow flowers every March. For me, it's one of my most reliable early bloomers and the flowers last through light frosts.
The plant is attractive throughout the year with small leaves that often take on a reddish hue in the winter. It stays fairly small - about 2' in ten years, and that's about the height of mine, but I have seen older plants reach about 5'. It's a hybrid of two lovely species, racemosum and keiski. While my plant is in the ground, Mary Fleming also makes a good potted plant due to its small stature.
The Countess of Haddington is an old variety, (1862), so presumably, was named after the real Countess of the day. It was a cross of ciliatum by dalhousiae. For those lucky enough to garden in warmer climates than mine, I suspect you can manage this one easily out of doors, but here in the Pacific Northwest, the Countess requires effort. I guess that since she's an aristocrat, she expects special treatment.
I grow my 'Countess of Haddington' in a 5 gallon pot. During the summer months she lazes around under the shade of an old apple tree where she gets some protection from the heat of the day and from full sun. I use a slow-release fertilizer treatment three times a year, and the Countess gets lots of water as the pot dries out quickly. I may have to break down and re-pot this plant this summer, but if I do, it will go into as light weight a pot as I can find because I do move the pot around frequently in winter. I occasionally pinch back some of the new shoots to keep the plant a manageable size and maintain some fullness. However, even after 6 years, the plant is a very manageable 4' tall, presumably due to its ciliatum heritage.
Since the Countess of Haddington is tender here, as soon as the temperature drops to near freezing, the plant gets moved to a sheltered area near the house where it spends much of the winter. I like to leave my tender rhodies outside as much as possible in the winter, but I pay close attention to temperature forecasts and my secret to growing them is to be ready to move pots into a frost-free area whenever necessary. The Countess of Haddington is only hardy to about 20F, so I'm prepared to pop it and all my other tender rhodies under my enclosed deck anytime the weather forecast indicates the temperature may drop to more than just a few degrees of frost. There aren't any windows under the deck so the plants remain in the dark during cold weather. During cold weather snaps, I have left them in this location for up to three weeks at a time, but they manage just fine even though there's no light. Once the cold is past though, they get moved back outside to their sheltered spot. I take care to make sure The Countess and her friends are watered on an as needed basis throughout the winter. It is surprising how fast they can dry out, even if it's pouring rain.
As soon as I see the flower buds opening, usually mid to late February, the Countess is moved into my sunroom where I'm rewarded with large, trumpet-like flowers of very pale pink. The fragrance is also wonderful and the plant perfumes the entire house. Since the sunroom is fairly cool, the plant stays in flower for almost a month which makes my efforts worthwhile. So, while Mary Fleming is a tough plant and the Countess of Haddington is a tender aristocrat, they're both lovely ladies, and I enjoy their company.
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.
Fragrant Rhododendron fortunei
Plant hunter Robert Fortune discovered this lovely species in 1855. It is a fragrant rhododendron...but unlike those sweetly scented, tender beauties lindleyi, nuttallii and maddenii, R. fortunei is quite hardy.
Fortune's original collections were made in Chekiang Province, in eastern China, at about 3,000 feet. Other plant hunters later found the species in Anhwei, Kiangsi, and Hunan Provinces growing in woods and forests at 2,000-4,000 feet in elevation. Plant hunter Robert Wilson noted that the species was common on other Chekiang mountains, particularly in the Lu Shan range of the neighboring province of Kiangsi, to the west.
The leaves of R. fortunei are handsome, and show some variation. They are 3 to 7 inches long, 1.5 to 3 inches wide. A prominent and very attractive feature is the deep red of the midrib and petioles (leaf stems); these create a ring of color around the dormant bud that seems to deepen and become more conspicuous in winter. The leaves of the Lu Shan form are typically a dull, olive green in color, and have rich red petioles.
The flowers of R. fortunei are borne in a loose truss of 5 to 12, and are shaped like wide bells...funnel-campanulate. They are pink to pale pinkish-lilac or rose and are fragrant.
Photo by Boris Bauer
R. fortunei has been much used for hybridizing, particularly in North America, and especially in the East...where it is appreciated for its tolerance of summer heat and winter cold. The two great hybridizers, Rothschild and Dexter, made free use of it this rhododendron as a parent. Indeed, one of the most loved hybrids of all time in eastern North America is Dexter's R. 'Scintillation'.
It is noteworthy that a particularly fine large flowered, sweet-scented R. fortunei clone was used as the seed parent of the original 'Loderi' hybrid grex. The other parent is R. griffithianum; a tender rhododendron found growing in the lower elevations of the Himalayas.
Adapted from Whidbey Island ARS Chapter newsletter, May 2003
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!
Oh dear, oh deer!
Like many American Rhododendron Society members, I share my garden with various "critters", including deer. Fortunately, the local deer don't like most rhododendrons, although they do like azaleas and evergreen azaleas, in particular, are akin to deer candy. I'm not able to fence the front yard (local by-lines and all that), so I've basically surrendered my front garden to the deer. As time has gone on, I've gradually switched many companion plants to things the deer don't seem to like. So, instead of Hostas, I now plant Brunnera - a lovely foliage plant with small blue flowers; the only tulips in the front are now in a pot on the porch, but I can plant snowdrops and daffodils. So, far, the deer have left the Crocus alone, so each fall, I add more of these. As well, for fall bulb colour, I find the deer haven't yet eaten Nerine or Schizostylus, but since these tend to be a bit pricey here, I've only planted a few of each so far, and I'm watching to see whether or not Bambi and his pals will eat them. Time will tell if these will work for me. Ferns seem to be generally deer resistant as do hellebores of all types. Hellebores make great companion plants for rhododendrons, having the added bonus of starting to bloom around mid-January in our area, with many new varieties having attractive foliage. The deer don't like anything with highly aromatic foliage, so in the sunniest areas, I've planted lots of lavender and I could put in some rosemary too. These may not be what generally come to mind as good companion plants for rhododendrons, but they seem to get along fairly well in my garden.
I've seen a couple of techniques that other local gardeners use to encourage the deer to move along. Two of my neighbours use motion activated sprinklers that are placed near their most precious hydrangeas (deer just love hydrangeas!). These seem to work well here, and I'm told that just the noise of the sprinklers starting is enough to get them to move. Other neighbours enclose small trees and shrubs with flexible plastic fencing material as a temporary barrier. And, some of the locals use various deer repellants (Bombax is very popular here). They spray their plants regularly in the spring to train the deer to keep moving by their property in search of something less stinky. Sporadic spraying is needed as a gentle reminder that the plants smell bad.
A great idea I saw recently was to put down wooden pallets on pathways leading from an unprotected garden area to the protected area. In this case, the plants in the back garden were much loved by the deer, but they could only access the area by going along a narrow pathway beside the house. The pallets act like a cattle guard and the deer just don't want to walk across the wooden slats. The gardener in question did say that the wooden pallets get very slippery when wet, but he can just up-end them while he is working, then pop them back on the ground as deer deterrents. Of course, the best deterrent of all is a good fence. Local recommendations say fences should be at least 8 ft high. However, most of us are able to keep the deer out with a standard 6 ft fence as long as shrubs are planted in beds beside the fence line. The theory is that deer need to be able to see an open space where they can land safely upon completing their jump. This certainly seems to work in our area: those of us with dense shrub plantings in a wide bed near our fences haven't had any problems with back yard gardens, but the neighbours with lots of lawns see the deer regularly.
It seems deer will eat anything if they get hungry enough, the trick is to make your garden less inviting than your neighbours. So, since deer don't like rhododendrons, you might as well plant lots! As if any ARS member needed an excuse to plant more rhodies!