Photography By Ron Capek
There are many lovely plants in Ted and Gidget Nyquist’s garden in Bartlett. But it’s Ted’s collection of rhododendrons – hundreds of them – that stop visitors in their tracks when the plants bloom. “I just love it,” Ted says. “People come around the corner, and they’re not expecting to see a garden with all these rhododendrons.”
President of the Midwest Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, Ted points out that “all azaleas are rhododendrons, but not everyone is aware of that.” Rhododendrons make up a genus of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs that are not typically seen in local gardens.
“There are not many plants in our climate where I can have large blooms over a two-month period where the plants themselves are located in a high-shade environment,” he adds. “Each one is slightly different, which makes it exciting. It just makes for a huge ‘wow’ in the spring when everything starts to bloom. It’s a welcome surprise and reward after a long winter. I love teaching others how to grow these plants in our climate.
“You can find rhododendrons and azaleas in garden centers, but you don’t get much help when it comes to growing them,” Ted says. “Even landscape architects get scared of using them, but one of my passions is showing people that you can grow them here.” In the past 26 years, he has planted hundreds of them in his garden, where some are nearly 10 feet tall, proving that they can do well given the right conditions.
Rhododendrons like acidic soil, with a pH range between 4.5 and 6.0, Ted explains. Because the Chicago area has alkaline soils that are sometimes higher than 7.0, gardeners must amend the soil to lower the acidity.
Excellent drainage is crucial for rhododendrons, especially in areas with heavy clay soils. “I’m not going to lose a plant because I didn’t prepare the soil properly.” He adds that the soil amendments can often cost more than the rhododendrons, but he’s willing to spend the money to make sure they’ll thrive.
He first creates low berms by rototilling the existing soil and then adds a mixture of Black Forest Soil Conditioner, a product sold in 2-cubic-foot bags that’s used to break up and acidify clay soils, along with ¾-inch pine fines (finely ground pine bark), and peat moss, which he combines at a ratio of 4-3-3 (four parts soil conditioner, three parts pine fines and three parts peat moss) and mixes in a large wheelbarrow or a garbage can. He may also add some perlite (a lightweight silicate sold in bags). He rototils the mixture and smoothes out the berms so they are about 18-20 inches above the surrounding soil. “The porous mixtures does a great job and because it’s slightly bermed, the water runs off instead of collecting around the roots.”
The soil preparation pays off with stunning results. “It’s really a ‘wow’ in the springtime. I don’t keep a log, but depending on the weather, the plants may be blooming in late April, but sometimes it’s very late May,” he said.
Some of his favorite rhododendrons include ‘Tapestry,’ with its lavender flowers and large evergreen leaves and ‘Mandarin Lights’, a deciduous azalea that lives up to its name. “Plant a group of ‘Mandarin Lights’ and it provides a massive display of bright orange blooms before the foliage emerges,” Ted says. “It has a small mounding form that is excellent for massing in shrub borders.”
Nyquist has added countless other new plants while making subtle changes to his ever-expanding beds and borders. The perennials alongside the driveway did not meet his expectations, so he replaced them with several ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight). “I wanted something to draw the eye, and they’re big, they bloom nicely and the flowers change color.”
The garden is a destination whatever the season. Spring ushers in daffodils (Narcissus cvs.), hellebores (Helleborus cvs.), native spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) that blanket the ground under many Japanese maples (Acer palmatum cvs.), redbuds (Cercis canadensis), hickories (Carya spp.) and oaks (Quercus spp.) across the gently rolling 7-acre site. Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa), Korean maples (Acer pseudosieboldianum), magnolias (Magnolia soulangeana cvs. and M. stellata cvs.) and other lovely small ornamental trees grace the beds and borders that surround the couple’s mid-century modern house.
Burkwood viburnum’s (Viburnum x burkwoodii) cream-colored blossoms fill the air with an almond-vanilla fragrance not far from the lush rose garden that features Lady Elsie May, Easy Elegance series, ‘Nearly Wild’ and Knock Out roses. A stroll along the meandering path takes you through a shade garden filled with epimedium (Epimedium spp.), ferns and hostas (Hosta cvs.), including the hostas ‘Elatior’ and ‘Empress Wu’, both of which can achieve 5-foot wingspans. Stroll around the barn and you come upon a lovely meditation garden – a serene fountain set off by boxwoods and azaleas.
There’s a sweeping bed filled with unusual conifers and cacti. Elsewhere, iris (Iris cvs.), ligularia (Ligularia cvs.), weigela (Weigela cvs.), buddleia (Buddleia cvs.) and drifts of sun- and shade-loving perennials create an ever changing palette. There’a a bed planted just for cut flowers filled with brightly colored dahlias (Dahlia cvs.), zinnias (Zinnia cvs.) and sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) Chocolate vine (Akebia cvs.) and trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) scramble over the arbors. In late summer, the seeds of native cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) draw goldfinches. Dragonflies dart over the pond where a lone muskrat occasionally glides across the surface. “There’s always something to see, and it’s always changing,” Gidget says. m
Nina A. Koziol teaches horticulture and garden design classes at The Chicago Botanic Garden and The Morton Arboretum. She is a horticulturist with a degree in education and environmental science.
For more information on rhododendrons, visit the Midwest Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society’s website at midwestars.org