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Moving a Rhododendron Garden
Dorothy G. Swift
Wickford, RI

In 25 years of gardening at one place, the face of the landscape can change. Of the tiny rhododendrons that you planted earliest some are now large shrubs that tower over you. I had discovered how to plant rhododendrons; first in the woods in my rocky, hilly land that was full of roots as well and later in the poor gravelly material that the builder used as a masquerade for topsoil. Some of my favorite plants originated as cuttings that I rooted in Styrofoam cups, using a method shown by Jack and Evvie Cowles. Rhododendrons were relatively easy to handle, once the challenge of making a hole is conquered. Really good initial planting of any cultivar that was likely to be hardy in my region, such as Dexter hybrids or Weston hybrids, invariably was successful, if I started with a healthy plant several years old.

'Lou Cook's Yellow'
'Lou Cook's Yellow'

It should be added that I also killed off a lot of rhododendrons, by putting small plants into the ground too soon, by keeping plants in containers too long, or by attempting to grow cultivators that are not really hardy in my climate. My location near Narragansett Bay in southern Rhode Island is around zone 6B. Even if there was not an extreme of low temperature, I discovered that rhododendrons developed on the West Coast, though rated as hardy to -5°F or 0°F degrees, did not like the amount of cold and freezing weather that we have, even if our low temperature was just between +2°F and +8°F degrees. Many Boston area ARS members kept telling me I was in the "banana belt," and it definitely was true as far as the Dexter hybrids, Wister hybrids, Cowles and Sandwich hybrids are concerned. In Santa Cruz, California, where I have spent time in recent years for business and pleasure, I was surprised to see in the "banana belt", near the ocean, that they really do grow bananas! Quite different from southern Rhode Island.

I have to mention that I think rhododendrons are WONDERFUL plants. They need very little attention, if mulched properly. Little fertilization is needed, generally no pruning, and watering only in drought periods, and I rarely had to spray for any pest. It doesn't mean I never had any pests, but that, as touted by Dr. Larry Englander, plant pathologist, rhododendrons will grow and thrive in our region. Just try such benign neglect with primroses or alpine plants, and you'll end up soon with no plants.

So, why move? Unlike many people who have to make a long distance move, I had no compelling reason to go to another location. I did have a house that I wanted to improve, but its architectural style meant it would always be a "fixed up raised ranch." I dreamed of being able to look out on my plants from inside, not down and out at them. When I had several surgeries, I found that getting up the stairs to the living level after coming home from the hospital was not really easy. And I was then stranded up there until I could again do stairs voluntarily.

What made me think seriously about moving was a planned community being developed on a lovely point of land in the north end of my town. The water surrounding the point is part of Wickford harbor, so it isn't readily open to the stronger forces of wind right at the edge of Narragansett Bay itself. But I liked the idea of a peninsula to provide moderation to the temperatures, and I noticed the breezes that usually blew to keep things comfortably cool in the summer. Once I had a location to deal with, it was possible to deal with modifying a house plan to meet my requirements.

A licensed Rhode Island landscape architect, Judy Ireland, did my landscape design. She made a draft of the landscape plan, which we modified as more features were added. Judy and I worked well together to select some of the smaller trees that have such beautiful flowers and foliage: Magnolia grandiflora 'Brackens Brown Beauty,' Davidia involucrata, Stewartia, Cornus kousa, Betula nigra 'Heritage', Betula szechuanense clone with white bark and purple foliage), Ilex 'Nellie Stevens', Ilex aquifolium (variegated leaf female form), a yellow magnolia ('Goldfinch' was used).

The following spring I took special care to label the rhododendrons and Mt. laurel by name and to make lists of just what was located in each area of the old garden. Among the largest ones were many that were not practical to move because they were very large and their roots were intertwined with rocks, roots, and adjacent plants. The hardscape that was planned was a brick walk in the front of the house from the driveway to front door, and a large bluestone patio at the rear of the house. Bordering parts of the patio were a small rock garden and a raised bed for some special plants. The lawn area was minimized, as I don't like to maintain a lot of grass, but I do like a small amount to set off the plants and the flower beds.

This rough outline left places to put in beds and paths, mainly beyond the patio, but essentially along all of the other boundaries. A corner with protection from existing tall oaks and a white pine beyond was the obvious place to put those tender yellow flowering plants. Some of the mountain laurels would be attractive near the street at one side of the property. This work on paper sorted my plant collection, as one does with lists and word processing. It was an excellent opportunity to group multiples of the same plant together, and to think about color combinations and color contrasts. It shuffled the plants around in another way; originally I began planting close to my house, so that the plants graded in size as large in front, small in back. It was possible to alter this, and many of the larger plants were sited along the side lines of the property.

The key person in the actual moving of plants was Dr. Susan Gordon. She is the manager of the Kinney Azalea Garden in Kingston RI. Spring is a busy time at the Azalea Garden, but Sue was able to commit herself and 2 additional helpers to working on 3 Sundays digging my plants. She had burlap to use on the roots, and a wonderful large handcart that worked as a plant carrier. By the end of the third Sunday, all of the rhododendrons had been dug and burlapped, and many of them had been transported over to the new location.

For the planting I had 3 workers with limited availability. Usually Judy and I decided on locations for the plants in advance, and then I had 1 strong person planting, while I played with putting in perennials and wildflowers. The largest rhododendron moved was a 'Judy Spillane,' which is taller than I am, and which has a lovely rounded habit and good foliage. Other large ones were 'Lou Cook's Yellow', and 'Skyglow'. These taller plants required considerable staking and weighting down, as once the wind started to blow, they just tipped over and out of their planting holes.

Another large plant moved was my original plant of the cultivar 'Andrew Paton' that I had grown from seed, and then selected and registered. Bob Furman contributed the seed to the Seed Exchange. The cross is `Scintillation' x R. calophytum. The flowers are white with a raspberry blotch, and it blooms in late April for me. The truss is larger than that of R. praevernum, and the plant is definitely a notch hardier. 'Andrew Paton' the rhododendron is named to honor Andrew Paton (now deceased) of Yarmouth Port, who worked together with me in starting Plants for Members in our chapter in 1976.

In our landscape plan, Judy Ireland had tentatively situated certain plants or groups of plants. The more tender yellow flowered plants went in a more sheltered area in a rear corner of the garden. My yak `Exbury' plants went in a front corner. Mountain laurels were grouped in front, near the side boundaries. Favorite plants and ones with very good foliage or shape were placed near the patio in the rear of the house, or at focal points along the path system in the main garden in the rear. About 4 plants (originally) of the azalea 'Yuka' that I rooted from the cuttings taken at Polly Hill's garden in 1976 had layered and re-sprouted, so that I had enough for a row of 6 of them in front of the front porch, and 1 left at the old garden and gave 4 away to people who help.

In the new garden most plants receive more wind and sun than they did before, and the soil is not as good, despite its being easier to work than the forest soil with its roots and rocks. We had consulted a soil scientist before planting and then we followed his suggestions of local peat to add, plus inorganic fertilizer and lime. The soil is very sandy, and doesn't hold nutrients well. It will take several years of carefully nurturing the rhododendrons to improve the soil to make it more appropriate for them.

Any losses? Of course. Some of the plants were dug with a minimal rootball, because there were so many rocks and roots (maple and spicebush or even adjacent rhododendrons). About 3 plants died in the first summer and several more during the first winter and second summer. But in moving over 150 rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurels, much more of my garden traveled with me than I had thought would be possible.

It's wonderful to have a house at almost ground level, and to walk out right from my kitchen or bedroom to the patio. And beyond the garden there is a lovely view of Wickford Cove. I'm sure it's unrelated to moving, but shortly afterward, I had medical tests that led to a need for 3 surgeries or procedures. All of these affected my abilities in walking and using stairs when I came home from the hospital. It was great to have only a step or two to master in order to get inside to bed and chairs. Moving the garden was a large job, more intricate than I had expected, and more expensive than I had predicted. But it's well worthwhile now to have my favorite plants surrounding the house, and to have a house plan that fits my needs and preferences.

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