(This whole web site was created by one of my sons as a Christmas present to me. The History page was also written by him after an interview with me, thus it is written in the third person.)
When most people think of gardens, they usually assume that the garden contains some small flowers, perhaps some vegetables, and a variety of plants. As is his defining personality, Dick Murcott has taken his interest to an extraordinary level and has created one of the most beautiful rhododendron gardens on Long Island. He started his garden 40 years ago when he became friendly with Sid Burns, the new President of the New York Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. Sid taught Dick how to make rhododendron crosses, grow seed and root cuttings.
In 1964, Dick purchased 2 acres of land in the farming community of Mattituck on eastern Long Island. Rhododendron seedlings and newly rooted cuttings were planted out there and were tended to on weekends by Dick. Marrying in 1967 and purchasing their first home in Baldwin Long Island, it became a burden to have to drive out to Mattituck every Saturday to tend the plants (a 1 1/2 hour drive each way), especially when their first baby arrived.
In 1970 a home was purchased in East Norwich on 2 acres of wooded land, just purfect for rhododendrons (once the underbrush was cleared away). Over the next year all the plants from Mattituck were moved to East Norwich, converting the front lawn into a rhododendron garden.
Hybridizing rhododendrons started in earnest in 1964, the year Don Hardgrove decided to sell his plants and move to Montana. Sid Burns purchased most of Don’s best hybrids and proceed to propagate them in his greenhouse. Sid had already purchased the original plant of ‘Dora Amateis’ and was vigerously propagating it. With Sid’s enormous encouragement, Dick starting to make crosses using some of the pollen from the Hardgrove plants. Open pollenated seed was also picked off the Hardgrove plants that fall and planted. The seed was sown in Sid’s greenhouse and planted out in Mattituck.
Knowing virtually nothing about rhododendrons,Dick had to take advice from Hardgrove, Vossburg and Sid. Most advice was good, but some not so good. Most of his first crosses turned out to be of little value! So much work for so little return. But the experience was priceless. Fortunately, a couple of crosses in 1965 and 1966 were very good. Sid had gotten some pollen from ‘Inamorata’ from the West Coast and Dick crossed it onto ‘Scintillation’. ‘Scintiallation’ was a very rare plant then, Sid having about the only one on Long Island.
The technique Dick uses to germanate rhododendron seed is the technique Sid Burns used and is very easy and produces seedlings with good roots and no chance of damp-off. The seed pods are picked in October and allowed to dry for several weeks. The pods are then opened and the seed removed. The seed is sown in November in clay pots placed in a closed polyethylene bag using oak leaf mould scraped from the woodland floor as the growing medium and placed under 24 hour flouresent lights in the basement of the home. The small seedlings are transplanted into flats on one inch centers in February and flats are continued under 24 hour flourescent lights. (The lights are very close to the plants – 2 or 3 inches above the leaves.) By May they are ready to be planted out in the garden. All plants are grown in the ground, none in pots.
Rich is a prolific speaker and gives many talks on Rhododendrons, Chrysanthemums, holly and general gardening techniques. He also used to be a beekeeper, so he helps people with their bee problems (which he usually notes are actually yellow jackets, but he helps out anyway). Rich used to extract honey each summer and give away the honey to friends. All of his children have been tested for bee sting allergies the old fashioned way – from standing too close during the extraction period and getting stung. He is also a famous chef, so the homemade honey was often used to spread over homemade croissants on Sunday mornings. Rich still spends considerable time in the garden and still enjoys giving tours for visitors and if you’re lucky, a delicious dinner when the tour is complete.