The past year has been a hard one, but I feel extremely lucky to live on Bainbridge surrounded by lovely yards and expansive parks. When spring arrived, my wife and I rousted ourselves from our winter gloom, got vaccinated and enjoyed the arrival of the first rhodie blooms of the season. Early arrivals in my yard gave me the electric purple PJM and the bright scarlet of Strigillosum. And the blooms keep on coming, ushering me through spring and towards summer.
Growing up in the PNW, I was surrounded by rhododendrons my entire childhood. Having a landscape architect and horticulturist as parents, I absorbed an amazing amount of plant knowledge early. Now, as an adult and homeowner here on beautiful Bainbridge Island, one of my favorite things to do is plant and play with rhodies in my own yard. When my wife and I moved here about eight years ago, one of the first things I did was begin the campaign of beating back blackberries, ripping out all the big box store garbage plants randomly scattered about the yard, and start building my collection of different species and hybrid rhododendrons
Second to playing with the rhodies in my own yard, I enjoy sharing my love for them with friends and neighbors. In April of 2019, I led a group of fellow Rotarians to a couple of my favorite rhodie nurseries in the area. I was going to do it again in 2020, but that year sucked… So, with spring upon us in 2021 and vaccination rates on the rise, I led a group again this April out to the peninsula to visit those same nurseries.
We started at one of the more special places in my heart, Chimacum Woods, where Bob Zimmerman has created a true garden of Eden – 20 plus acres of rhododendrons, specializing in pure species. It is a collection he has been tending to for nearly 40 years with unique species from all over the world. You can find tiny little alpine loving rhodies native to the Himalayas to the giants found in the deep jungles of China. This highlights a huge draw to these plants for me – such diversity. Some have leaves no bigger than a pencil eraser to ones larger than banquet platters.
For our next stop, we headed farther down the Hood Canal to Whitney Gardens in Brinnon, home of one of the more fabulous hybrid nurseries in the country. This seven-acre nursery has been operating since just after WWII and is famous for hybridizing a few classics like Top Banana and Anna Rose Whitney. If you want to see eye popping gaga color, go here any April or May. It is impossible for me to spend fewer than a couple hours there this time of year. I could hang out happily all day taking in the blooms, enjoying their differences, thinking about how they might fit into my yard, how I might sneak another two or three in without my wife noticing.
During our tour, I could not help myself and yakked peoples’ ears off on all sorts of rhodie related topics: How to pinch growth for grooming shape, fertilization, best substrate for planting rhodies, watering regimes, dealing with blights and pests, sun exposures, pruning techniques, and of course – blooms! Some of my favorite blooms seen this spring have been the buttery yellow of Macabeanum, the red of Ochraceum you can see from a thousand yards, and my absolute favorite – the smokey purple of Niveum. Even though rhodies are well suited to our climate here, there is still a lot to consider and do for their care if you want better odds for healthy plants and pretty blooms. But it is a balance between letting them be wild plants, which is what they want, and trying to tame them for the more controlled environment of our backyards.
If you want to know my favorite spots to hunt for rhodie blooms – go check out:
And then of course there is my yard, where with another 30 or 40 years it will be one of the region’s finest collections.
Rotarian Adam Matschek is a well-versed property caretaker with an exceptional following part-time Islanders who own seasonal homes on or near Bainbridge Island.