What I Learned from Four Remarkable Plantsmen

By Ridge Goodwin in Mulch

We call this Blog Mulch because it's an aggregate of thoughts about conifers by different people. It's purpose is to nurture the soul when not in the garden. To launch the series we asked long time ACS member Ridge Goodwin to reflect on the people he's met over the years in the conifer business. - Ed.

Richard Vanderbilt

My earliest influences in the nursery business and subsequently the world of conifers was in the early 1970s when I met Richard Vanderbilt, a renegade relative of Cornelius Vanderbilt, yes, the Cornelius Vanderbilt. Rich had made his own way in life from where he had grown up on Staten Island, NY, and was then the production manager atthe Conard-Pyle Company, the producer of Star Roses in West Grove, PA.

I had just entered the nursery business as a sales representative having spent the previous four years following my graduation from college in marketing for the Xerox Corporation. The Conard-Pyle Company under Dick's leadership was one of the early adapters of growing nursery stock in containers with artificial media. There were many problems in those early years of growing containerized nursery stock that had to be worked out, largely by trial and error, since this was a new frontier with very little in the way of accrued knowledge that one could gain from the work of others. Dick, who did not have a horticultural background, educated himself by reading voraciously and deeply everything he could get his hands on that involved nursery stock production. Although not formally trained, he became one of the most knowledgeable and best production managers in the industry and enabled the Conard-Pyle Company to become one of the largest production container nurseries in the country.

One day Dick invited me into his office and said, "If you want to be any good in this game of selling nursery stock you've got to know your horticulture, and so for those of us who haven't had much formal training in horticulture you've got to do some reading." I said, "Where do I start?" With that he turned in his chair and with the sweep of his hand indicated the wall in back of him that was filled with hundreds of books having to do with horticulture. "I'll give you three books to start and when you return them I'll give you three more." Thus began my horticultural education starting with Plant propagation Practices by James C. Wells, The UC System for Producing Healthy Container-grown Plants by Kenneth F. Baker and the various manuals that the British firm Hillier produced to support their product line in the 1940s and 50's - then the most authoritative non-scientific reference works of the period. That process ran for quite a few years which I have never regretted.

Some years later I introduced Dick to Rudi Kluis thinking that Rudi's densiflora x thunbergi pine 'Jane Kluis' would be a commercial hit and a more attractive alternative to the then very popular seedling grown mugho pine. After several years of evaluation Dick returned the plant to Rudi saying "this plant will never sell in quantity because of the price differential caused by its production cost" (grafting vs. seed). When you consider the tens of thousands of seedling mugho pines that continue to be sold each year by the nursery industry and how few 'Jane Kluis' his was an accurate prediction of how peripheral a role grafted stock would play and continues to play in our domestic nursery business. Incidentally, I have one of the original 'Jane Kluis' pines in my collection. It gets needle cast every fall and looks terrible until new growth pushes out in the spring, but when it does, it takes on that rich limy-green color that was unique to the Kluis series of densiflora/thunbergi crosses.

Rudolph Kluis

Rudi grew up in Holland and was a member of the Kluis family that owned Kluis Nurseries that may be familiar to people who remember Rhododendron varieties of that name as well as the Hydrangea 'Kluis Perfecta' which originated there. Rudi emigrated to the US in the 1950s, settled in Marlboro, NJ, and started a small nursery and landscaping business with his wife, Jane.

Rudi brought with him from Europe a knowledge of grafted conifers that became his specialty. I remember my first visit to his small nursery that had subsequently been engulfed by a development and noticed that several houses in the neighborhood that I passed had strikingly different landscaping than the others. The difference turned out to be that they had been landscaped by Rudi and included many of his colorful and uniquely shaped conifers.

After visiting him many times over the next ten years I became appreciative of the fact that not only was his plant material unique, but their arrangement in these several landscapes was performed by the hand of a master quite familiar with his materials and very conversant with their growth rates. He used a variety of plants both common and grafted with the intention that there would be an ongoing editing process which, as the plants grew, expendable plants would be removed to make room for the growth of the conifers. As the planting aged, the conifers would be permitted to grow and accrue greater stature in his design scheme.

This is a lesson I didn't fully appreciate at the time and one that confronts conifer gardeners continuously as their gardens age and become more developed. Rudi, being a European, had much more experience working with conifer cultivars, was familiar with their different growth rates and planned his designs accordingly. We conifer enthusiasts here in the US are just beginning to learn the lessons of needing to allow for continuous growth of the plants that are the main subjects of our gardens.

Most of our gardening tradition in the United States has been with flowering shrubs and common evergreens that can be controlled by shearing and, in some cases, rejuvenated when they outgrow their position in the landscape. This is not the case as we know with conifers for they grow every year and most of them resent being controlled. The 'Mucronata' spruce that looks cute at three feet might still work in the original garden design at five feet, but what happens when it becomes a fifteen footer in thirty years? I’m not sure even Rudi could have answered this question and, given the size of the average suburban lot today, maybe the question is beside the point. The important thing is, conifer gardeners who want their collection to make a pleasing and continuous landscape statement must plan for growth. Space plants correctly. Employ temporary ‘placeholder’ plants in between the conifers while they are maturing and choose the slower growing conifer cultivars to give you the longest lasting effect.

Martin Brooks

Marty Brooks graduated from Delaware Valley Agriculturial College in Doylestown, PA, with the intention of becoming a landscape nurseryman. Marty has always been first and foremost a plantsman who has a keen eye for unusual and little known plants which he incorporates into his work that distinguishes him from many of his competitors. Marty has always been particular about the plants he uses in his work and visits nurseries on a regular basis to personally select his plant material. While on these tours he will be sure to notice unusual plants that nurserymen inevitably collect because they like plants and it is typical that they keep some of the odd ones around if only for their own enjoyment.

Brooks’ specializes in large specimens of rare plants for high-end clients. And, of course, they deliver.
Brooks’ specializes in large specimens of rare plants for high-end clients. And, of course, they deliver.

Marty recognized from the beginning that many of these plants were special and would appeal to high end customers that wanted unique specimens featured in their landscapes. He could often buy these plants cheaply because they were unknown and were little in demand. “They were just taking up valuable space in your nursery” he would say as he loaded them onto his truck. He bought some ground near his house in Doylestown to accommodate these unusual plants, some being conifer cultivars, others varieties of trees such as are found in the Fagus genus, then quite rare, or anything that struck his fancy or excited his imagination.

While part of his new ground was for lining out trees for his landscape business, a significant part was reserved to become a selling arboretum or “showroom” for customers who had the interest and means to acquire the one-of-a-kind specimen trees Marty had started to collect. He also recognized that he had to grow them to specimen size for them to have maximum visual effect and of course, greatest monetary yield!

What made Marty Brooks unique was he, more than anyone else at that time, recognized the value in rare and unusual plants and the appeal they would have for high end landscape work and particularly with wealthy plant collectors.

During the 2005 National Meeting in New Jersey, Marty Brooks led a demonstration on proper digging techniques. (The cigar remained unlit as a safety precaution.)
During the 2005 National Meeting in New Jersey, Marty Brooks led a demonstration on proper digging techniques. (The cigar remained unlit as a safety precaution.)

During the 1970s and 1980s a lot of money was being made on Wall Street that spurred a building boom on the east end of Long Island known as The Hamptons - also known as the the playground of the rich and famous. Martin Brooks, Horticulturist, as he called himself, became quite popular with this crowd.

With the stub of a rank cigar in his mouth and a gleam in his eye he could tell beguiling stories about the plants he had collected, how rare they were and how unusual. These details were of particular interest for some of his clients who wished to gain a social competitive advantage in their neighborhood by owning and displaying large rare trees. While he could often mangle the pronunciation of Latin cultivar names, he was close enough that we all knew what he was talking about and there was never any question about his authority when it came to his knowledge of plants.

Collectors began to flock to him. He sold a Pinus parviflora ’Bergmani’ that might have been four feet high and maybe six feet wide sometime in the early 80’s to Alphonso Ossorio of Southampton, NY, for $13,000! A picture of the plant made the cover of the American Nurseryman the following month and was listed as the highest price ever paid at that time for a single plant. Not that long thereafter he completed a huge sale of plants from his nursery to another New York state collector the magnitude of which I remember, but probably should not divulge. Let’s just say the amount was enough to insure a comfortable retirement, not that Marty has ever thought of retiring.

Along the way Marty became quite adept at perfecting the old fashioned methods of harvesting large specimen trees which had become his specialty. There was no tree too large for Marty to attempt to transplant other than the maximum dimensions permitted by the state for over-the-road transport. He was quite conversant with the use of cranes and developed heavy duty straps and fittings to safely and easily lift huge root balls. He was one of the few nurserymen I ever encountered that had his own truck mounted crane which enabled him to transplant large trees on a routine basis.

He had learned from the horticultural college the ancient and intricate technique of drum lacing using thick sisal rope to tie-up large root balls securely so they could be safely lifted onto waiting trucks. By having his feet planted in both the old ways of nursery production and the newly sophisticated world of rare plant marketing, he was ahead of his time and showed many of us newcomers the way!

Ed Rezek

Eddie (as everyone called him), was from Malverne, Long Island. He developed his fascination with dwarf conifers at the end of WW II when, as a young Marine staff sergeant, he found himself in Peking where dwarf plants were part of the Chinese culture for centuries. He once told Newsday garden writer Irene Virag that for years "I carried the picture of the Forbidden City in my mind." He and his nearby friend Joe Reis, who had similar interests, would travel around Long Island together on weekends visiting large estates, grave yards, nurseries and arboreta searching for mutations on conifers called "witch's brooms." When they found them they would bring back scion wood to their homes, graft them up in their small make-shift greenhouses and set them out in their collections.

Ed Rezek (2002)
Ed Rezek (2002)

Both men were of modest means, Joe was a printer and Eddie a postman whose houses were typical of suburban Long Island subdivisions that did not have large lot sizes and did not include a great deal of space for gardening - but what glorious use they were able to make of these small spaces!

Eddie, probably more than Joe, I remember as more of a collector, who had artistic and design talent which was brought to bear in the miniature landscapes he created on small irregularly shaped beds in the tightly restricted space of his back yard. Inevitably, small colorful plants began leaking out to the front of the house and ultimately spilling down the street finding their way into neighbor's yards here and there.

Eddie, like Rudi Kluis, was a master of his materials, and had an innate sense which plants worked well together and how to create interesting compositions of contrasting shapes, sizes and colors that kept the eye bouncing from one tableau to the next without repetition or tiring the eye. All of this was done mostly with dwarfs and miniatures, which as many of us know, are particularly difficult to work with and to keep healthy, indicating Eddie's highly developed skills as a plantsman.

Rezek's place became a mecca on Long Island for aspiring conifer gardeners willing to take the time to seek him out. He would always be ready to offer some advice, if asked, and no one left his property without a sense of wonderment at his talents, nor without a gift of a plant from of his greenhouse or cutting beds that was likely one of his own discoveries.

Up until his death in 2005 you could always count on running into Eddie at the various ACS regional and national meetings freely offering his advice and lending his authority to conversations concerning correct nomenclature of conifer cultivars and where they had been discovered. He was also a major contributor of scion wood to Jean Iseli out in Oregon as he was building his nursery and the two were very good friends.

There is almost nothing good any knowledgeable plant person will say about the invasive Norway maple but Ed Rezek may redeem the species yet. One, which probably began life as a volunteer seedling in the hedgerow between his and his neighbor's property, started raining down aberrant seed into several of Eddie's planting beds resulting in a most astonishing variety of odd looking progeny popping up in his display beds.

At first an annoyance and a weeding problem, Eddie soon came to recognize that these odd-ball mutations from a weed tree germinating right under his nose merited much closer attention. He began to separate them into several distinct forms from which he selected the most promising performers. Some grew to species size without any side branching whatsoever making a most wondrous bean-pole while some were dwarf, some intermediate and some had dark crinkly foliage, etc. There were many distinct cultivars. Such an outpouring of seedling diversity has probably never yielded such a bonanza of unique new plants and thankfully, it happened in the back yard of one of the foremost mutant plant collectors of our time, or else they might not have been noticed at all.

So what is the common thread that runs through these early pioneers who were instrumental in the development and popularization of conifers that once were only known in this country by a handful of collectors? Passion.

Clearly there was a fascination with the mystery and folklore of how conifer cultivars arose as mutations. The idea of trying to develop witch's brooms and other strange conifer permutations hadn't occurred to people in the United States until the 1960s and 1970s when the awareness, initially among hobbyists, that interesting new and unique garden plants could, in fact, be developed from these sources. This discovery led to the realization that witch's brooms could be the source for a world of fresh new garden plants previously unknown to horticulture. It required a lot of time, dedicated effort and resources to create this field and the only way that was accomplished was because of people like these men who were passionate about conifers.

In 1983 some of us - men and women - realized that we were on to something and banded together to start the American Conifer Society. We became evangelists for conifers and we went forth from that day spreading the word to all who would listen. And that passion continues today.

Ed. Note: In the winter of 1995-96 Rich and Susie Eyre met with Ed Rezek on Long Island and brought a movie camera to produce this one hour tour of his garden and those of some of his friends, including the garden of the recently departed Joe Reis. This video has been on the Eyre's Foxwillow Pines Nursery site and we offer it here with their permission.

For more reflections from Ridge, see My Most Unforgettable Character.