A Plot That Tells One Man's Story

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tony Dove shows me a 1967 aerial photograph of his family home, a rambler on four acres in Harwood in Anne Arundel County. "It was a Monday," he says, pointing out the sheets blowing on the clothesline. "My mom always did the laundry on a Monday."

Looking at the grainy, black-and-white picture, I can just make out rows of baby conifers, which Dove planted before he left for college to study horticulture.

Today, the pines are more than 50 feet tall and shelter enormous rhododendrons. Dove, 60, has seen many spring seasons here since he came to the property in 1959. Certainly, as far as the rhododendrons and closely related azaleas are concerned, this is the best spring he can remember. He ascribes this not to the cool, moist and measured season we have had this year but, amazingly, to last year's killer drought.

Late last summer, he would water every 10 to 14 days, drawing from an aquifer so deep and large that it reaches to Long Island. He gave the rhododendrons enough water to survive, but they did not receive the surfeit of moisture that, in a wetter year, pushes leaf growth at the expense of flower-bud development.

In addition, the dryness banished a common flower disease called petal blight, and the cloudless skies of 2007 allowed the plants to build more sugars than usual.

By late summer, Dove was seeing an astonishing amount of flower-bud set, and he knew that if the winter cooperated, he would have the mother of all rhododendron seasons. "I thought maybe we'll have a good winter, mild, not too warm," says Dove, a horticulturist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. This was the weather we got, of course, an even and placid winter without the wild, lethal swings of the one before.

The other day, we strutted through his pine glade, along thick-needled paths between walls of rhododendron flower clusters, trusses presented like glassy baubles in some otherworldly casbah. Most are large hybrids developed decades ago by Charles Dexter, a Massachusetts breeder; his associate Tony Consolini; and Joseph Gable, a hybridizer from Pennsylvania.

Ben Morrison is a shell-pink azalea variety with a scattershot pattern on the upper petal in darker pink. "It's like somebody took a paintbrush and stained it," Dove says.

Behind it, a red-flowered rhododendron variety, Francesca, towers 15 feet above us. Farther along, Dove stops to take an eye-level truss of Mary Belle, peachy pink. "It's a beaut," he says. As we descend toward a separate, hillside rhododendron garden beneath huge sycamores, his wife, Della, asks if I can hear the owls, and I listen to the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, then pick out the echoed calls of a resident pair of barred owls.

Tony Dove steps carefully past low-growing perennials to get to a waist-high rhododendron named Helen Everett. This variety is usually fragrant, and the few trusses of this specimen are a creamy white. Now eight years old, this is the first time it has flowered for him, and he takes a whiff. It is, of course, sweetly scented.

This little piece of paradise is something of an accident. Dove planted the eastern white and loblolly pines here to raise as small, trim Christmas trees, but three days after graduating from the University of Maryland, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam for three years. When he returned, the trees were too large to sell. But he remembered reading that while rhododendrons struggle in the hot coastal plain of Maryland -- being mountain dwellers in the wild -- they would do well under a cooling, acidifying canopy of pines. More than 20 years ago, he began propagating hybrid rhodies in this area by taking leaf cuttings from stock plants.

A decade earlier, he did the same to the lower sycamore garden. Here, he stops to look at a delicately white-flowered native azalea, Rhododendron alabamense. Its blossoms are little more than an inch across, white with a yellow blotch, and even more fragrant than Helen Everett.

Elsewhere, we see some of the other plants that Dove has grown here over the years, including a half-dozen or so species and hybrids of stewartia tree, and daphnes unknown to most gardeners. Amid a tangle of vegetation on the woodland floor, he stops to examine Daphne jezoensis, which has the curious habit of disappearing in summer to reappear for the winter in fresh growth and bloom. "In January it has blooms and soft growth while it's zero degrees," he says. "Totally backwards."

Finally, we make it to a pond, marked by a baldcypress whose knees -- botanical snorkels for the roots -- reach a foot or more at the water's edge. The pond is just another poignant aspect of how a garden can tell a life story, if you stick around long enough.

As a teenager, Dove had been working in the tobacco farms that then predominated in this part of Anne Arundel County, and he had amassed enough money to go to one farmer with a proposition. He would pay $1,000 for four acres of woodland adjoining his parents' property. Done, said the farmer, and the 16-year-old got his woodland, whose floor was covered with the native bloodroot that he adored. When he graduated from high school, his aunt arranged for the pond to be dug.

Living here as a boy, returning in middle age and planting all along, Dove recognizes that his ability to see trees and shrubs grow from seed to maturity has provided a blessed sort of life. "A lot of people don't get the advantage of that," he says. "I'm very, very fortunate."

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