Betty Ann Addison was preparing to say goodbye to her beloved, 16-acre nursery, Rice Creek Gardens, when I first met her in 2006. After 20 years, rising taxes and assessments had made running the park-like nursery she and her late husband, Charles, opened on the site of a former junkyard in Blaine a losing proposition. Her eyes were sad, but the joy she felt as she pointed out specific plants, many of which she and Charles had hybridized themselves, was obvious in the way she smiled, or sometimes laughed in that way she does, short, sweet, a cross between a squeal and a giggle. A person would have to be made of stone to not be made happy by that laugh. Hugging goodbye, she admitted that the move was hard, but things were going to be all right, she said, because
“I will remember how blessed I’ve been, and I will go on living every moment and, well, isn’t that enough?”
Such a sentiment might sound hopelessly upbeat coming from someone else. But people who know Addison, who is now in her late 70s, know that she is the sort of person who has always lived every moment—and then some. Over lunch at her house in Feburary, she apologized for being tired, explaining that she had just gotten home from the gym and was feeling a bit discombobulated due to floor refinishing, kitchen updating and other house projects in the works. Still, in between bites of the chicken soup she’d made for us, she talked excitedly about the presentation she would soon be doing for the Potomac Valley Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society in Bethesda, Maryland.
Addison is well known for her rock gardening expertise and has designed and built several public rock gardens including the Peace Garden at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, as well as gardens in New York’s Central Park.
“Rock gardening is the highest horticultural art because it incorporates so many thousands of wild and cultivated plants, combined with rocks, to make a landscape based on nature”
she says. To illustrate, she tells the story of how her mother took up rock gardening in her 70s.
“My mother passed away at 93 and she was a great gardener all her life. When she told me she wanted to try rock gardening, I built one for her and she said it was the best garden she ever had because every day there was something new to discover.”
For decades, Addison traveled the world with her mother, bringing home plants to try in their home gardens: hers in Minnesota and her mother’s on Long Island where Addison grew up. Sometimes the two of them brought back so many plants in their luggage, they had to send their clothes home in boxes. At a time when Minnesotans had few hardy plants to choose from, Addison’s trials and propagation of thousands of varieties of seeds from worldwide sources helped make the wider selection gardeners enjoy today possible.
Addison is a longtime propagator and breeder of hardy rhododendrons, including large-leaf rhododendrons, which were long thought to be ungrowable in this climate. Recently, she purchased an acre of land across the street from her house for testing rhododendrons and she’s looking forward to seeing some of her hybrid creations bloom this spring. On the day I visited, Addison was most concerned with the immediate need to transplant the hundreds of alpine cuttings growing in flats in the sunny, south-facing greenhouse she had built several years ago. Just a short set of stairs down from her living room, the greenhouse is the starting place for many of the plants she sells at her home-based nursery, Gardens of Rice Creek, in Fridley. The nursery is open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting in May through Labor Day. And as she did at Rice Creek in Blaine, Addison offers an extraordinary selection of rare and unusual plants, including dwarf conifers, alpine and rock garden plants, as well as native wildflowers and rhododendrons. (For more information visit the Gardens of Rice Creek website.)
A Gardener’s Garden
In addition to everything else she does, Addison also designs gardens for public and private clients. To understand her aesthetic prospective clients need only visit her home (by appointment) and wander around her extensive gardens in the front and back yards. Though she has lived in her house for more than 50 years, much of the landscape was completely reworked when Rice Creek Gardens closed and she decided to take many of the nursery’s plants, huge limestone boulders and stepping stones home with her. As you would expect, there are several rock gardens. One that is particularly striking runs the whole length of one side of the driveway and features alpines, the tiniest of rock garden plants, including trailing veronica and several varieties of sedum, primrose, phlox, geranium and dianthus.
In the front yard, a curving path of grass bisects two large garden beds planted in berms. Closest to the house, a mature false cypress serves as a focal point and is balanced by a dwarf white pine and a ‘Degroot’s Spire’ arborvitae across from it. Both berms include weathered rocks that look almost as if they could have been found there naturally, as well as dwarf conifers, a golden false cypress, evergreen azaleas and dwarf large-leaf rhododendrons that add structure to the landscape. Delphinium, dianthus, potentilla, creeping phlox, dwarf daylilies and other perennials and rock garden plants provide bursts of color at different times of the season. Addison prefers dwarf daylilies because the small, spent flowers disappear in new blooms, so deadheading is not necessary for them to look neat. She explains:
“Daylilies also add yellows and oranges, which you need to cut the sweetness of the pinks of dianthus and phlox so your garden doesn’t look too insipid”
While Addison’s front yard is exceptional for its design and plant diversity, I gasped last summer when I walked beneath the Gardens of Rice Creek sign above the back gate and glimpsed her enchanting, park-like landscape. There are three levels of terraced gardens: the lowest contains the nursery where tables are lined up to accommodate Saturday shoppers. On the top level, a peaceful waterway is fed by a simple fountain above a pair of cupped, bronze hands. Addison had the hands sculpted from a wax mold of her husband’s hands before he died of congestive heart failure nearly two decades ago.
“It’s important to include water because it brings the sky into your gardens,”
she says, pointing out a woodpecker landing on a feeder just outside the kitchen window.
Along the fence on both sides of the yard curving beds contain a variety of plants, some of the most notable being a weeping white pine, paper birch, dwarf hemlocks, a variety of hellebores, ferns, phlox, azaleas, rhododendrons, Japanese forest grass and ‘Lois’, a magnolia hybrid (Magnolia x brooklynensis ‘Lois’) from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with bright yellow blooms that last several weeks after opening later in the spring. “You don’t see that magnolia very much, but you should because it’s just gorgeous, and it’s also reliably hardy. I know because I’ve had it for years,” she says, pointing to photos on her computer because I missed it when it was in bloom.
Addison is a firm believer that gardeners shouldn’t trust books and plant tags to tell them what’s hardy. Give plants a try. See for yourself. Over the years at Rice Creek Gardens, she, Charles and their business partner, horticulturist Harvey Buchite tested thousands of plants from all over the world. These days, the beds in the center of the second level of her backyard serve as trial gardens for the many large-leaf rhododendrons she is working to breed. Though she isn’t ready to introduce any of her cultivars, she is pleased with the results she’s had so far, and as we headed down to the basement to see some of her latest rhododendron seedlings, she could hardly contain her excitement.
“See, this is a really special one, look at that nice reddish cast to the leaves. There is a good chance it may produce dark flowers too,” she says, smiling.
“These are my own hand-pollinated seedlings and there are way too many to grow on, so when they are transplanted I look at their roots. Roots should be like a bunch of grapes, holding onto the peat moss and aggressively seeking water and food. If they have little shoestring roots, they get thrown out. Amateurs want to save every little thing, but I have learned through trial and error that the strongest in the pot are the strongest in the garden.”
[*This story first appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Northern Gardener magazine.]