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A Man Among Rhodies

by Mary Jasch

It’s not hard to find Dennis McKiver’s home on the north side of Fort Bragg, California, about a mile inland from the Pacific Ocean. Among the trees and infrequent houses on this forest road, one comes upon a jungle-like garden of, first, roses and clematis clambering over trellises and trees, then a mail box embedded in shrubby rosemary, callas, clematis and azaleas, and then the clincher – a dirt driveway with a zillion stacked nursery pots of every size and a house set among a thousand rhododendrons.

The 200-plus species and 1,000-plus hybrids are symptomatic of McKiver’s consuming passion. “If I have duplicates, it’s because I’ve forgotten I had them,” he says. Few of the rhodies are planted in the ground; most are in containers; others grow in piles of mulch. He says rhododendrons have shallow roots that grow from the top of the root ball and therefore don’t like to be “planted.” The rest of the root ball simply stabilizes the plant in the soil.

McKiver's reasons for growing rhododendrons in pots:
1. “When I started collecting them, I collected them faster than I had places to plant them. When we cleared the brush, I started to get them in the ground.
2. ”I did a garden display in pots at the top of driveway for the public with whatever was blooming. I kept trading plants out for whatever was blooming until people started stealing them.
3. “I move them around because some can stand the wind, some can’t. I also get to see what grows best and what colors look best together.
4. “I planted and spaced others according to their ultimate size and placed others in pots between them to fill in temporarily.”

Rhodies like to be planted in mulch, he says. They like light airy soil. “The best thing to do is pull it out of the pot, set in on the ground and mulch around it. I don’t do any digging.”

McKiver, a Patrol Lieutenant for California’s Natural Resources Agency, Department of Fish and Wildlife, keeps watch over forest and sea. His property lies in a transition forest. What was once a closed-cone Bishop pine forest is becoming a coast redwood forest. The Bishop pines have reached maturity now at 80 years old and are dying from disease, though they are springing up wherever McKiver had burn piles and tossed in pine branches with cones. Fire completed the job. Luckily, rhododendrons like to grow where redwoods live.

His land was overgrown with brush when he and his wife Valerie bought it in 2001. They cleared it and – Voila! discovered flowers!

“It was a ‘tree rose’ – a rhododendron. My wife really liked them and I found out deer don’t eat them. Roses are difficult to grow here. So I said ‘Let’s just grow rhododendrons instead of roses.’ I started collecting them. I liked them; she liked them. We started showing them and joined the club (Noyo Chapter of American Rhododendron Society). I started collecting rhodies that filled in categories that were missing in the show: bonsai, oranges, blues, purples… I started collecting one of everything growing around Fort Bragg. I just started getting carried away and that’s why I have 1,000 rhododendrons.”

McKiver’s rhododendrons bloom practically year-round. Some bloom really late, others early and some bloom twice a year. “So there’s not a month that I don’t have at least one blooming.” Thanks much to neighbor Lucy who gave McKiver everything that didn’t bloom at show time. A garden area called “Lucy’s Discards” is dedicated to her.

Every year, the Noyo club puts on the John Druecker Memorial Rhododendron Show, the third largest in the country and every year McKiver takes the most ribbons. It’s sometimes known as “The McKiver Show.” This year he won 33 ribbons with his 200 entries out of 600-plus. He wins the bonsai category, simply because no one else enters. He even studied bonsai and propagation of rhododendrons and azaleas in Japan.

‘Noyo Chief,’ the signature rhododendron of the Noyo club, was introduced in the ‘60s by Dr. Bowman, the club’s founder. Bowman traveled the world, collected seed in China, grew them on and gave them hybrid names such as R. arboreum subsp zylanicum, ‘Noyo Chief.’ “Everybody loved it. There was not another one like it. The club adopted it as a mascot.”

McKiver also collects deciduous azaleas. While they’re young, he protects them from coastal black-tailed deer behind a fence. After the azaleas have been growing in acid soil a while and turn bitter, the deer won’t eat them.

Around back where his neighbor cut down pines, there is a direct blast of ocean wind. There, McKiver tests his potted and movable rhodies for wind damage and full sun tolerance. Though they like to be protected from afternoon sun, they tolerate full sun here because it’s still cool when it’s a 100 degrees inland.

He’s got more plans for his back yard. “My plan is to have this whole side of my property planted in Big Leaf Rhododendron. Arboreum stands for tree – tree rhododendron, ‘like a redwood bush.’”

McKiver’s tip for the day: If you need help rooting your rhodie cuttings, send them to Kathy at Van Veen Nursery in Portland, Oregon. “She can put roots on a pencil.”

**Mary Jasch photos

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published August 13, 2014

Photos to enlarge

This must be where Dennis McKiver lives!

Rhododendrons and coast redwood, perfect together.

Red 'Noyo Chief' across the front, 'Purple Splendour' and coast redwoods

Rosa 'Malvern Hill' cascades down a coast redwood

'Josephine,' perhaps the most flamboyant clematis

Dennis McKiver among his beloved arboreum 'Pink Delight' and 'Anna Rose Whitney'

Perfect plant tags invented by Dennis McKiver cut from vertical blinds with UV protection, corners rounded, stacked, then a hole drilled through the stack. Special labels survive the dishwasher.

'Lemon Dream'

Big Leaf rhododendron, R. macbeanum x penjerrick

When a tree falls in the forest, it's always home to living creatures such as this coast redwood that McKiver shaved the top off and made a table for smaller pots of rhododendrons.

Rhododendron 'Smokey #9'

Rhododendron 'Point Defiance' with wavy, dark green leaves

Rhododendron 'Olin O. Dobbs'

Burned out trunks of redwood still support new life.

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