Retiree's Plant Passion Yields A Harvest Of Color

What once was merely a 4 1/2 -acre stress outlet for Jerry Hudgens has become a showpiece for garden enthusiasts near and far


Jerry Hudgens' garden spills out across 4 1/2 acres, resplendent with mostly native plants such as rare trilliums, hostas, wild gingers and azaleas.

A rushing stream winds through the garden, called Fern Dell, for the more than 10,000 ferns growing wild. The plants and flowers on his Churchville property start blooming in February and blossom every month through November, when bright yellow leopard spots, brilliant blue monkshood, white Chadds Ford orchids, purple and white toad lilies and bright red winterberry holly pop out.

"Jerry has several species of rhododendrons that many of us can't grow," said Donald Hyatt of the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. "He has quite a collection of rare wildflowers and trillium species. He has a great location and great soil and the plants just love it."

But it wasn't always that way.

"When I first bought this house and land in 1966, I tried to grow a vegetable garden and failed miserably at it," said the 67-year-old Hudgens.

At that point, he stuck to household plants until 1978, when he started dabbling in flowers and other plants. He had almost immediate success - and now everything the retired psychologist touches seems to thrive.

Hudgens' garden has grown into a showpiece, visited by organizations such as Harford County Master Gardeners, the Delaware Valley Fern & Wildflower Society, and the Mason-Dixon Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society.

Hyatt said the American Rhododendron Society plans to tour the garden in the spring with the more than 500 attendees of its national convention.

"We've never seen the garden in full bloom," Hyatt said. "It's magnificent in pictures. It's a carpet of flowers. This is the first time we've had our convention in this area since 1982, so it's our first chance to get to see it as a group."

With little training in his early gardening days, Hudgens resorted to trial and error.

But he had a good start. Although he had no formal background in horticulture when he started, he's been exposed to gardens and plants his entire life. His father had vegetable gardens, his mother tended flowerbeds and his grandmother grew roses.

Hudgens' passion for plants started around the house. After failing with vegetables, he decided to go with things that would grow in the shade, such as azaleas and rhododendrons.

Early on he had to learn to battle such problems as petal blight, a condition that causes plants to turn to mush, and leaf gall, where growths form on the leaves of some plants.

"I read a lot of gardening books and joined groups to learn about how to deal with garden pests and things like that," he said. "I quickly learned the best way to avoid spraying for pests and to prevent disease in plants was not to plant a monoculture. In order for a garden to thrive, it needs diversity."

Hudgens worked as a research psychologist at Aberdeen Proving Ground until 1995. He worked to find ways to reduce stress for soldiers. During this time, he found the best antidote for his own stress was gardening.

"I would come home from work, put on my wide-brimmed straw hat and garden until dark," said Hudgens. "I spend as much as eight to 10 hours a day working in the garden."

Upon retiring, Hudgens decided to get formal training in gardening and enrolled in the University of Maryland's master gardening program.

While there he learned the basics that helped hone his skills.

Over the years, he's had to overcome myriad challenges, including how to care for the garden single-handedly, which gets harder as he ages. Hudgens said he spends more than eight hours a day in the garden from March to November. Every spring he compiles a to-do list that he says is typically six pages or longer.

"I literally have hundreds of things to do in the spring to open the garden for the year," said Hudgens. His tasks include everything from cleanup and mowing to raking.

One of his favorite rituals is buying new plants. On average, Hudgens purchases 200 to 300 trees, shrubs and perennials, as well as two truckloads of mulch. He buys little in the way of ornaments for the garden; he prefers the natural look.

"I've never sat down and created even a basic plan for the garden," said Hudgens. "I'm a plantaholic. If I see a plant that will enrich the garden's diversity that I like, I buy it. I usually have a good sense of where nature would put it. So sometimes I might spend an hour looking at places before planting it."

He said sometimes, without trying, he's picked the same spot as nature, as was the case with a fringe tree.

"I planted it in what I thought was the perfect spot for it," said Hudgens. "I stood back to admire it and noticed several others were already growing wild in the woods behind it."

Hudgens said he enjoys the creative aspects of gardening.

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