Gardens - Featured Gardens

Rhodo scholar

Jodi Delong
Photography by
John Sylvester

Study the ways and wonders of rhodos and make them top of the class

On a winding road that traces the curves and jogs of shoreline near Lunenburg, on Nova Scotia's scenic South Shore, is Bayport Plant Farm, where Capt. Dick Steele works his horticultural magic. The 12 hectares of Dick's breeding and retail operations are awash with rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and other wonderful species of shrubs, trees and perennials.

Dick's fascination with plants started in his childhood; he grew up near the Saint John River in New Brunswick. He was particularly taken with rhododendrons. But serving his country as a naval officer in the Second World War as well as family demands kept him from doing much gardening until the late 1940s. He then served in Korea, so his plans for plants were put on hold until the mid-'50s.

With limited information or stock available locally, he travelled to England and the eastern U.S. to learn from other breeders and collect seed and cuttings. His numerous test-planting sites included the community of Boulderwood, near Halifax, where he lived for 21 years. Many of the rhododendrons Dick gave to his neighbours there are now nearly 50 years old, and the June to July bloom period is spectacular. By the early 1970s he recognized that he needed more room for his ever-expanding collections, so he established his plant farm in Bayport, which had the acidic soil and moderating temperatures of the nearby ocean that rhodos crave.

Some people dismiss rhododendrons as stars of the garden because of their short bloom period or because they can be finicky. Dick disagrees. "The wonderful foliage of rhododendrons makes these plants attractive whether they're in bloom or not." By planting a variety of cultivars, it's possible to have flowers from late April (in mild years) through to late July. He agrees that these plants, like any others, have certain requirements for optimum performance, but these are easy to achieve.

Even though there were some native specimens of rhodos in Atlantic Canada when Dick started growing them, there were very few cultivated shrubs. Dick knew the plants would thrive in Nova Scotia, as they require acidic soil and perform better in moderate climates. But he wanted to develop plants that bloomed earlier, later and in different colours, and were hardier under tough conditions.

Garden facts
Size: 12 hectares
Orientation: south
Conditions: woodland and meadows
Growing season: late April to mid-November
Garden focus: rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias
Zone: 6a


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