Don’t tell Linda Charvat you can’t grow rhododendron in Michigan. The president of Rosebay Nursery has been proving people wrong for 40 years. Charvat’s nursery covers 20 acres in Saugatuck, a Western Michigan town just a few miles from Lake Michigan.

It’s not a huge operation, but it’s a well-planned 20 acres. Rosebay specializes in rhododendrons and azaleas, with some pieris as well. With several different types of growing environment on hand, Rosebay functions like a rhododendron research center. Some grow nestled between rows of tall pine trees. Others grow in more open areas. Linda takes pride in the fact that her rhododendrons can handle the cold Midwestern winters.

Linda Charvat

“When we first started going to trade shows, probably half the people that came to the booth would say ‘You can’t grow those in Michigan!’” she says. “I even had a college professor from Michigan State saying that. ‘Don’t grow them. They don’t grow in Michigan.’ I said, ‘I’m doing just fine.’ He finally stopped saying that.”

Growing survivors

Plants grown at Rosebay survive anywhere from three to 10 Michigan winters before heading out into the real world. Linda doesn’t believe in babying her plants.

Some people believe rhodies are difficult to grow in the Midwest, but after 40-plus years Linda has a simple three-part formula. First, use hardy varieties. Second, condition the soil properly. Rhododendrons need a well-drained acidic soil. And last, match the variety to the location. Most hybrids, for example, should be kept from the winter sun.

Most of Rosebay’s containers are stored outside in the winter to add to their toughness. Rosebay’s rhodies can be found in 3-gallon pots and other containers, but most are in the ground.

“When we pot them up, try to leave them where they need to be for as long as possible,” Linda says. “The ones in containers go against the pines. They’ll sit for a year; we don’t move them.”

Any rhododendron that can be moved is moved to protect it from the winter sun and the wind, the two limiting factors for growing rhodies in the Midwest.

“They have to be not just cold-hardy but able to take a little abuse,” she says.

The reason winter sun is such a problem is because it fools the shrub into leaving itself unprotected. In an interesting defense mechanism, rhododendrons curl their leaves in the winter if the temperature is cold. For instance, Rosebay’s top-selling PJM small-leafed rhododendron has the ability to curl its leaves to a point where they almost look like needles.

This skill shields them from the wind and the desiccation that can occur. If the shrubs are in the shade, they’ll hold that curl. If they’re placed in a sunny area and the sun hits the leaf, the plant is fooled. Even though the air is cold, the leaves open up.

“That’s when they burn,” Linda says.

Rhododendrons can burn from wind damage too, but as long as those leaves stay curled they have a much better chance of weathering the winter.

Linda says Rosebay’s location is perfect for rhododendron growing. Its sandy soil and mature pines provide just what the shrubs need. The nursery is a former Christmas tree farm that provides sheltered areas between rows of pines and open fields and a spruce forest that provides cover in the winter.

For instance, when growing Scintillation, a large-leafed rhodie, Rosebay always plant those right up against the pines. This protects them from the winter sun. In the spring and summer months, they receive a lot of sun. But in December, the sun is so low in the sky that it is very shaded in that area.

“Even when we had the polar vortex, the plants survived it,” Linda says.

Rosebay has added 24 polyhouses to overwinter spring orders and 27 Nearing frames for propagation and introduction of new varieties.

Her crew sticks cuttings in cold frames in August and lets them sit over winter, then pots them up in the spring. From there, they take cuttings. Linda says Rosebay roots about 2/3 of its plants. The remaining 1/3 are brought in as liners from tissue labs in Rhode Island and Washington state.

“[The remaining 1/3] just don’t root well,” she says. “Once they’re bigger they grow just fine.”

For propagation, she uses a modified Nearing frame, the design for which dates back to the 1940s. There’s no greenhouse, no extra heat. Once the frames are opened up, the plants will be acclimated to the weather. Next, Linda’s team pots them up into quart-sized containers. They are grown in the poly house for a year. From there, the quarts are upsized into pots or planted in the field.

“We don’t go from the cutting to the field, we do one more stage,” she says. “It takes a while, but once you get that quart container, those are tough little plants. We can put them wherever and they do really well.”

Keeping customers happy

Rosebay’s business comes from landscape contractors and retail garden centers. Her landscape customers love the fact that she often carries large specimens, like 4-6 foot rhododendrons. Depending on when you go, there might even be some that crest the 8 foot mark. Shrubs of that size are tough to find, but if you have a job that requires an instant landscape, they fill the bill.

Linda has created her own set of tags for Rosebay-grown plants. Since introducing the informative tags, most of her garden center customers request them with their plants. They’re sold in garden centers under the Birdie’s Happy Plants name. She also created a website by that name for consumers, which houses more information to help them care for their new rhododendron.

It had to be different than the Rosebay Nursery site, which maintains a password-protected price and availability list for wholesale customers.

“We wanted a website and identification for our plants that didn’t say Rosebay Nursery because we didn’t want our customers’ customers contacting us,” she says.

“Birdie” is the mascot, or “spokes-chicken” of the brand, and appears throughout the site.

“There’s an animated chicken; it’s fun,” Linda says.

If you frequent any of the regional trade shows in Illinois or Michigan, you may even have seen Linda in full chicken costume.

Linda has made a plant tag for every variety her nursery carries and she has received a lot of feedback on the tags themselves. Each tag has a photo, a hardiness rating, the plant’s height in 10 years, and siting guidelines on the front. The back of the tag includes a link to the Birdie’s Happy Plants website, which houses more information on care, planting and pruning – important facts that don’t all fit on a tag.

“We laminate them, like business cards for the individual varieties,” she says. “It’s not info out of a book, it’s out of my experience.”

Rosebay Nursery has shipped semis as far as Long Island, but most of its plants end up within a 300-mile radius of Saugatuck, Mich. There are also a lot of wholesale pickups from the nursery itself. Linda is happy with the nursery’s current size, but she still strives for improvement in other ways – from finding a way to root a particularly tricky rhodie to modernizing her business.

“We don’t really need to get any bigger, we pretty much sell out,” she says. “I just want to do it better. We have software program that keeps track of inventory. I still try new things, but if I could I’d have horses instead of tractors.” NM

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