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With 90 varieties, there’s no such thing as too many rhododendrons for University Place man

Most Puget Sound gardeners have at least a couple of rhododendrons in their yards. It’s the fail-safe foundation shrub that will cope with our weather, is deer-proof and will reliably turn on a flowery show every spring without much attention. But few gardeners go as far as Steve Johnson, a Master Gardener who has no fewer than 90 kinds of rhodies in his modest University Place garden. Johnson’s secret? Keep them small, keep them neat and keep them accessible.

“There’s such a variety, they’re so beautiful and they have year-round interest,” says Johnson, of why he’s in love with rhododendrons. “You look at the foliage as much as the plant itself.”

Johnson, a Master Gardener and member of the American Rhododendron Society, is a true aficionado — of the 90-odd rhododendrons and azaleas in his garden, only two are identical: a couple of Jean Maries, the bullet-proof red bloom common in Puget Sound yards. And to highlight that individuality — as well as keep his garden from becoming a rhodie forest — Johnson keeps his plants on the small side.

“Rhododendrons will get as big as a house if you let them,” he says. “They don’t stop growing. There are species in the Himalayas that grow 80 feet tall — they use them for lumber. I like the shrub look.”

Pruning off all new growth, as Johnson does, also helps keep each bush accessible for maintenance. Stretching 360 degrees around the house, with only a patch of lawn, the garden beds are immaculately neat, with most plants no more than four feet high and a decorous distance from both each other and the ferns, fuschias, peonies, bulbs and barberry that complement them. (Johnson also has a bed with 36 rose varieties, but that’s another story.)

“I like to walk through and keep them neat,” he says.

Johnson tours the garden, pointing out his favorites and deadheading constantly. His most-loved rhodie is a 15-year-old Naselle, which won a blue ribbon at the local Rhododendron Society show for its pinky coral flowers, deeper pink at the edges. There’s a Starbright Champagne, with unusual creamy tongue-shaped flowers spotted blood-red. There’s williamsianum, with candy-pink blooms; roxieanum, a species of rhododendron native to Asia with delicate creamy-pink flowers; the frilly pink blossoms of Pink Sherbet; the deep mauve of Blaney’s Blue (“The closest thing to true blue in rhododendrons,” says Johnson) and the rare Seattle Springtime, an early bloomer with dainty pinky-white flowers. Other plants, including 12 varieties of azalea crawling with bees, add red, yellow, orange and even purple-black (“Midnight”) to Johnson’s rhodie rainbow. Bloom time in Johnson’s garden lasts from February to June, when the roses take over.

But rhododendrons aren’t just about flowers.

“If you’re a rhododendron aficionado you like plants with nice foliage too,” Johnson says. One of the nicest, he says, is “Grumpy” (yes, it’s named after one of the dwarves) — it’s a yakushimanum, a species coming from the southern Japanese island of Yakushimana and only known outside Japan for the last 50 years. “Yacks,” as Johnson affectionately calls them, are distinguished by the fuzzy underside of their leaves, often a pale brown or gray that can fool inexperienced gardeners into thinking it’s a kind of mildew. Other rhodies that hold their own without blooms are Whistle Punch, with smaller, almost heart-shaped dark-green leaves; the golden variegated foliage of Super Flimmer and roxieanum’s skinny, three-inch leaves, thickly clustered like an Australian callistemon.

But out of all of them, only one rhododendron is actually a Northwest native: the macrophyllum, with rosy-pink blooms.

Johnson has carefully chosen his rhodies to suit the sun and shade conditions around his house — and carefully chosen his trees as well so they don’t compete. Mountain laurels have the same needs as rhododendrons, while vine maples offer visual interest at a slightly higher level without overpowering the other plants. In one back corner, a circle of rhodies surrounds a vine maple in a garden planted in memory of Johnson’s brother Neal.

Ninety varieties of rhodie may sound like a lot, but it’s not too much for Johnson, who’s been living in his University Place house for 45 years and began the garden from scratch. He typically buys from local specialty nurseries (see box for resources) but also gets plants from grower friends and goes on bus trips with the Rhododendron Society.

“We’re going to Portland in May, and I can’t go to a nursery without buying something,” he says. “Where the luggage goes on the bus, we put plants.”

Johnson, who’s retired, also shares his knowledge at Master Gardener talks and clinics (see box for details).

But most of all, he just loves rhododendrons for their beauty.

“They’re beautiful plants even when they’re not in bloom,” he says.