A Collector's Garden

Be warned. Gardening can become addictive! Jeanine Smith can attest to that.

I recently met Jeanine at the annual conference of the American Rhododendron Society where I was a speaker. I was immediately drawn to her fun-loving personality as we chatted, so was delighted to be invited to visit her garden in Woodinville, WA while her extensive rhododendron collection was at its peak.

Her passion – and collection started with a plant sale where she was encouraged to join the Seattle Rhododendron Society.

A long, winding driveway flanked by mature plantings creates a wonderful sense of anticipation before finally opening up to reveal the home set behind the only area of lawn.

Jeanine's resulting plant propagating and collecting led to her and her charming husband Rex buying a 2.9 acre piece of woodland, building a house, and beginning the layout of a garden.  Over the next 45 years, the garden has grown and evolved:  Jeanne was the plantswoman and designer, while Rex provided the support and labor that made it possible, including hand watering for many years before finally installing an irrigation system.

Meandering paths edged with mossy logs lead through a woodland wonderland

However, things didn't stop there! Jeanine's rhododendron obsession led to several years of hybridizing, plus travel to Sikkim and China to see rhododendrons in their native habitat, and a resulting focus on species.

Although this is very much a Rhododendron collectors garden, there are delightful surprises within the garden such as this primrose lined path leading to a partially hidden pond.

As Jeanine admits, "The challenge in garden-making is the warring of design and collecting—there are so many interesting plants!"

It's all in the details

As it happens, that was the very subject I had been invited to speak on at the conference – how to create a four season garden when you are a plant collector. Collections typically have a peak season – but then lose their visual appeal. However, both this garden and one I shared with your earlier are 'poster child' examples of how it can be done effectively, allowing favorite specimens to shine by paying attention to details – often a color detail.

Unexpected color cues

I was captivated by this foliage. The new growth emerges with white suede leaves and rust-colored indumentum on the underside. Stunning even without flowers.

I challenged the conference audience to think 'Beyond the Bloom' and look for color cues in the foliage as well as the flowers and then to repeat that color with a plant partner. Here I saw examples of that very principle. The Rhododendron roxieanum var. globigerum, drew my attention with the striking white new growth and rust colored indumemtum. It was planted adjacent to a white enkianthus (Enkianthus perulatus)

Notice the color echo between the creamy-white blooms of the white enkianthus and the white emerging foliage of the rhododendron behind it. The pink rhodies are Jeanine's hybrids.

The color echo between the flower of the white enkianthus and new rhododendron foliage was striking, but there was more. The dangling flower clusters are an intriguing contrast to the stiff, upright, shuttlecocks of the new rhododendron foliage. Details like this hold our attention and so the rhododendron becomes so much more than just a flowering specimen but also an architectural design element.

While both these shrubs are in bloom it was actually the pink bud scales that made me reach for my camera

In the photograph above you might be initially attracted to the magenta and white flowers of the azalea (R. tosaense ‘Barbara') and Rhododendron 'Tanyosho' respectively – and certainly they are lovely. But look closer! Notice the color echo of the pink rhododendron bud scales with the magenta azalea  blooms? That connection creates a sense of place. It suggests a strategic choice rather than an arbitrary one.

Rhododendron 'Lem's Cameo'  has these crimson bud scales. What would you pair this with?

Color Cues from Flowers

Monochromatic pairing

The above image shows how simple it can be to find a plant partner for your specimen plant by repeating the bloom color and time: in this case a white flowering rhododendron and white flowering Viburnum davidii.

A 'big picture' view showing color repetition to lead you down a path

While many plant combinations I share are closeup vignettes, it's also helpful to see the importance of stepping back and using broad strokes of color to lead the eye – and feet – along a meandering pathway. In the above photo both white and pink blooming species entice you to explore around the corner.

The same scene taken standing next to the pink flowering azalea reveals more of this concept:

The underplanting of shade loving bulbs and perennials ensures interest even after these blooms are spent.

From this angle we can see the pink flowers repeated on either side of the path but also a distant bronze Japanese maple, backlit by the midday sun, drawing us down in order to see more.

Shade partners to consider

Think 'foliage first'! (I may have a book about that…). Love the deep rosy hues in this astilbe foliage – it really adds depth to the pink flowers of the azalea and will continue to add color and texture contrast when flowers are just a memory.

Spotty Dotty mayapple is a showstopper

Hostas get all the love and attention in the shade gardening world but there are so many other bold foliage plants to consider including the may apples (Podophyllum spp.). Spotty Dotty is a downright flirt in the garden! She all but begs for interesting company.

Spotty Dotty may apple paired and contrasted with a green leaved astilbe

The above duo was a delightful pairing in Jeanine's garden with a nice mound of barrenwort (Epimedium spp.) off to one side. In combination they created a wonderful textural carpet beneath mature rhododendron and will ensure woodland walks continue to be enchanting all the way through  fall.

Final Highlights

Rhododendron 'Starbright Champagne' – just stunning! It has chocolate new growth.

As much as I always design "foliage first", I am still stopped in my tracks by some flowers and these last few images are examples of those that did just that. I loved the way the light shone through the delicate white petals of R. 'Starbright Champagne'. The translucence was remarkable. The contrast of those pristine white petals with the blood-red throat and "freckles" was truly breathtaking. It was almost too perfect to be real. I was beginning to understand Jeanine's love affair with the genus!

Rhododendron 'Medusa' – call it coral, persimmon, warm apricot…. I simply call it delicious

As for R. 'Medusa'. All I can say is "Wow!" Look into the depth of the petals and you'll see shades of gold, orange, pink, raspberry, coral, tangerine…..what would you pair this with? Maybe orange hair sedge (Carex testacea?). Or?? Leave me some ideas in the comments! Here it is in all it's glory:

R. 'Medusa'

The best gardens engage all the senses and this is where R. 'Loderi King George' shines. The fragrance calls you from several yards away, and walking beneath its towering canopy made me feel like Alice in Wonderland.

Walking beneath a fragrant canopy of R. 'Loderi King George'

R. 'Loderi King George' close up –enables you to see the white blooms fading to the palest pink, but it's the fragrance that makes this swoon-worthy

A huge thank you to Jeanine and Rex for welcoming me to their garden and allowing me to share it with you. A lovely couple – and a truly delightful collector's garden.

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  1. Pamela Van vleet on May 28, 2024 at 8:20 am

    Loved reading about this stunning garden. Your descriptions caused me to realize that I need to locate a source for Enkianthus. I do not have one in our garden right now, although I enjoyed it is our last garden.
    R. “Medusa” is a stunner, I might consider pairing it with Epimedium x rubrum.

    • Karen Chapman on May 28, 2024 at 9:40 am

      Ooh I like that combination idea! And always happy to be your shopping enabler 🙂

  2. cat on May 28, 2024 at 8:29 am

    I enjoyed this article, too… Since we live where rhododenron are native plants and are EVERYWHERE, I hardly have given much attention to the notion of "collecting" them – or planting more! 🙂 Inn fact, I'm not exactly sure where I'd plant more– except to create a screen between our house and the road if the planting location would work. But I'm very grateful to have them if they are collector worthy! Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

    • Karen Chapman on May 28, 2024 at 9:40 am

      Glad you enjoyed this garden as much as I did.

  3. Christa Balk on May 28, 2024 at 11:16 am

    Wow Karen!
    I am thrilled, that you met Jeanine and Rex Smith and experienced their phenomenal, artistic gardens! The talented artist (painter), Jeanine is, is evident in everything, plant choices, combinations and design.

    We met around 1970, living in the same small community, quickly becoming friends, sharing our plant and gardening passions even then. Our connection and friendship has been strong up to now!
    Their property offers surprises around each curve and the 40 year of maturity all around is rewarding, and as all gardeners know, requires constant attention. Their daughters family is actively involved now!

    Your article and great photos have made my day! Thank you!❤️👍

    • Karen Chapman on May 28, 2024 at 2:23 pm

      What a great coincidence! I met their daughter at the conference – and again in the garden too.

  4. Elizabeth on May 28, 2024 at 6:13 pm

    How about Heuchera Delta Dawn and Brilliance Autumn Fern as pairings?!

    • Karen Chapman on May 28, 2024 at 8:36 pm

      That's a great combo idea! You're hired!!

  5. […] essay: A Collector's Garden (Karen Chapman/Le Jardinet). A visit to the almost 3-acre garden of a rhododendron collector and […]

  6. Enrique on June 20, 2024 at 7:12 pm

    Your blog is a breath of fresh air in the world of landscape design. The thoughtful content and stunning examples you share have truly enhanced my gardening experience. Keep inspiring us with your creativity!

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