The Evolution of "The Willow Garden"
( from Atlantic Rhodo V27 #3...Oct'03)

The garden was started in the late 1970s when Bill and his late wife retired to Nova Scotia from Ottawa. During the first years there was quite a concentration on vegetable growing with the addition of many beds containing spring bulbs, lilies, perennials, roses and a variety of shrubs. The area is very natural and by no means formal. Most of the existing trees are those that were originally growing on the property. The best of the lot are some good groupings of white birch.

The name "The Willow Garden" has been a fairly recent addition, it is the literal translation of ‘Wilgenhof’ from Dutch and seemed an appropriate moniker.

For those unfamiliar with our garden, we are located about 15 Km. outside of Antigonish. Our garden is a semi-woodland area (~3 acres +/-) with good shelter from wind, but the planting areas still have more sun than shade. The soil here is pure sand. This presents a continuous need for soil enhancement to maintain fertility and moisture retention. Drainage is certainly never a problem! Copious quantities of composted horse manure are incorporated each year.

The garden today represents the effort of both Bill and Sharon, who officially joined forces in 1999. They still have some elements of the original garden beds with a considerable amount of addition and renovation.

Part of this addition is the recent clearing and preparation of a one-acre section which is to become a botanical forest. Hopefully this will provide an area to plant trees, some of which we already have growing as seedlings. The plan is to add Red Oak and some species of Pine as a backbone. It is inevitable that there will also be some plantings of azaleas and Rhododendrons.

We have often dubbed our garden a "growers" garden because so much of what is here has been grown from seed or cuttings. This propensity to collect and grow seeds of many plants leads us to incorporate "nursery bed" areas into the overall "plan" of the garden. We have to use the word "plan" a bit casually because sometimes it seems we do not have one… interesting plants are grown and somehow get fitted into the landscape, most often with rather satisfactory results.

Interest in Rhododendrons and Azaleas came about in the late 1980’s. Based on past experience, Bill assumed they could be grown from seed as so many other things were. A considerable amount of trial and error has led to a very successful approach to the growing of Rhododendrons from seed.

The Rhododendrons and Azaleas now cover an age range from one to twelve years. The last year or two has witnessed a fair degree of maturity in plant growth and bloom from many seed lots ranging back to 1992. It is difficult to judge the quality and uniqueness of many of these seedlings as they bloom, but needless to say they provide a lot of excitement.

One of the most beautiful plants has come from ARS92#765 (Barbara Cook X Janet Blair). It is a very nice plant with frilly pale pink blooms with magenta freckles and a dark red throat. We have affectionately dubbed it ‘Sproeten’; whether we actually go through the performance of officially naming it remains to be seen.

Another group of seedlings from ARS92#608 (a complex cross from the Andersons of New Jersey) has given several very good yellows. Two of these have been exceptional in their non-fading blooms and winter hardiness.

Each season certainly becomes more complex relative to keeping records of the performance of the many plants in bloom.

Each year sees the addition of 500-1000 new seedlings grown from seed obtained from the ARS Seed Exchange and that from the ‘Atlantic Region’. This, of course, demands that space be made available. Ruthless weeding out of the less desirable helps a little. A thousand yearlings can be accommodated in a much smaller space than those same plants two-three years later. The problem of space is ever present! Many of our mature plants are still suffering somewhat because they are too crowded. Throughout the garden you will encounter nursery bed areas each representing a ‘seed-year’ grouping of seedlings.

Interspersed with the many seedlings from those years are a fair number of named varieties from tissue culture acquisitions or plants brought in by the Rhododendron Society.

The very first planting of Rhododendrons at the north end of our house has some rather old standbys such as ‘Nova Zembla’, ‘Chionoides’, ‘Ramapo’, Catawbiense alba, to name a few. They are a bit crowded, but plug along each year.

One rather cheery spring show is provided by a mass planting of ‘PJM’ in the front yard under a stand of spruce trees. This spring color is accompanied by a mix of ‘April Rose’ and ‘PJM’ directly in front of the house. The variety in early bloomers is enhanced by both pink and white R.dauricum and R. mucronulatum grown as seedlings and acquired plants. Keeping all of these rhodies company are thousands of spring blooming bulbs. These front yard beds give way to plantings of Impatiens and tuberous Begonias for summer interest.

One our favorite early Rhodies is ‘Azuray’ which puts on a great display of lovely violet bloom along with ‘PJM’. The plants are seemingly at maturity, and are now about 6 feet tall. This same bed is home to R. bureauvii, R. albrechtii as well as a few known varieties such as ’Malta’, ‘Henry’s Red’, ‘Edith Bosley’, ‘Nova Zembla’, ‘Swansdown’, and the worst specimen of ‘Hong Kong’ ever seen. There are a few more Catawbiense types plus a fine showing of the azalea ‘Spicy Lights’. Late season bloom is always brilliant because of several ‘July Jester’ azaleas and a few Kalmia. There are relatively few seedlings in this bed, but there is one group. They have been nicknamed "The Steele Bastards" since seed came from Dick Steele who had no exact knowledge of the cross. They have grown to be quite big plants, likely showing some R. fortunei in their parentage, blooming in various shades of white and pink. They exhibit beautiful new growth, but a very harsh winter can cause some distress.

Azaleas have proven to be rather a "simple" plant to grow from seed and we have a large number scattered throughout the property. We don’t always know the exact source, but they provide a brilliant addition to our June garden. Most of the plants are seed grown and are a range of salmon and coral shades, yellows and white.

One group of seedlings grown from seeds via the RSCAR Seed Exchange(1995 )has given us an interesting collection of pink plants which have the azalea ’Homebush’ as the seed parent.

Other known varieties of azaleas include ‘Homebush’, plus ‘Spicy Lights’ and ‘Golden Lights’ from the very hardy Northern Lights series.

We have been trying several seed lots from some of the species Azaleas over the last two years, so some of these ought to bloom in a year or two. We have been trying to encourage our gardening cohorts (or anyone who will listen) to give azaleas a chance in their gardens. Whether from seeds or from purchased plants, they often give a gratification that is missed if only Rhododendrons are tried.

The garden has enough areas of mixed perennial plantings to be of interest throughout the gardening season. One bed we call the "gulley" has a very beautiful naturalized planting of spring bulbs plus a share of Rhododendrons: ‘Scintillation’, ‘Elvira’, ‘Crete’, ‘Percy Wiseman’, ‘R. carolinianum’, ‘Sue Gunn’, ‘Azuray’, ‘Charme-La’, C. grandiflorum, ‘Isola bella’, ‘Angel Powder’ plus a couple of unknowns. The season extends into good shows of many perennials including Peonies, Oriental Poppies, Lilies (both Asiatic and Oriental) and a late season of dayliles, Phlox and coneflower.

One section here has a trial planting of the clumping Umbrella Bamboo, Fargesia murielae, which have grown from seeds sown in 1999. Plants from this seeding have been planted in a few places to see where they are happiest, most are 3-4 feet in height. They are planted in the shadiest end near some pine trees and share the bed for a time with Hostas and Astilbe.

One of the focal points of the garden is the large central perennial bed which greets one as you enter the driveway. Like so many of our garden areas it is an eclectic mix of bulbs, Rhododendrons, roses, daylilies and many other perennials which hopefully see us through from very early spring until fall. It is hard to pinpoint when is its best time.

Our "front-side" garden has had a bit of a face-lift this summer with the addition of a new rose arbor and some rather large Rhododendron seedlings (11 years of age, moved from a crowded area in the back) and several azaleas.

This garden area has had a planting of peonies as the focus for quite a number of years. Peonies have become a favorite seed-grown item during the past five or six years. They are mostly seedlings from open pollinated seed collected from a large number of cultivars. Many of these plants are now of blooming size. Some are still in nursery bed areas, while others have been moved to garden beds.

Our "back" garden is partly dominated by a huge white birch directly behind the house. We suspect it also tries to dominate the garden beds here in terms of root invasion and competition for moisture.

Leading down the hill towards these plantings is a rose arbor which is home to the rose ‘Dorothy Perkins’, a very vigorous rambling rose which blooms in late summer. There are a variety of perennials in the area surrounding the arbor. It is quite sunny and dry so various thymes, Russian Sage and several Heathers are doing well.

Part of this bed merges with another nursery area with some shrub cuttings, seedlings of Magnolia and February Daphne plus many other things.

One large bed is composed of some Rhododendrons and azaleas, but also has many bulbs, peonies, daylilies and a lovely Beauty Bush (Kolwitzia sp.). As this is being written there is a great display of phlox, lilies and Monkshood.

An adjacent bed was created for transplanting Rhododendron seedlings after their first years in a nursery bed. Some of the spaces are shared by a Japanese Maple and a selection of lilies. Two beds at the far bottom of the garden have Rhododendrons, Azaleas and some specialty trees grown from seed. Several Catalpa ovata (Chinese catalpa), which bloom at a very young age, are doing well here.

Adjacent to our official beds are several areas we use as combination nursery beds and vegetable garden. We seem to have almost mastered the "art" of growing enough garlic for a year’s supply! Mid-summer sees a large sea of Rudbeckia in various parts of the garden, these have either volunteered or were really planted. We are too kind-hearted to weed them out!

This concludes a rather rambling sketch of our garden. It is ongoing, ever-changing and a source of great joy and satisfaction. Part of the joy we get from our garden is in the ability to share, therefore we welcome anyone who would like to come for a visit. This can be done in person or online at our website. There you can see that a picture,is indeed, worth a thousand words.