Tom Dilatush: Outstanding Plantsman
By Frank Goodhart
Some ACS members may recall visiting the Dilatush Nursery in Robbinsville, New Jersey. Tom and Elinor converted an older traditional family nursery to one specializing in dwarf and unusual conifers. From the early 1970s until nearly 1990 they specialized in dwarf conifer cultivars and were one of the first nurseries to supply them to regional collectors and hobbyists. No doubt the small advertisements in the journal of the North American Rock Garden Society and the ACS Bulletin led many people, not only from the tri-state area, but also from other areas around the country to visit the Dilatush Nursery. Visitors were immediately impressed by the extensive displays of dwarf conifers on raised berms with a mulch of red gravel. It was a truly impressive experience to see the large curved beds displaying each conifer perfectly. It was, at that time, one of only a few places in the region where an extensive display of "landscape size" dwarf conifers could be seen and purchased. More than a hundred dwarf cultivars were available in small quantities, notably cultivars of Chamaecyparis, Pinus, Cryptomeria, Juniperus, Tsuga, Picea and Taxus.
Elinor and Tom come from farm/nursery backgrounds and their plant interests started at early ages. Tom's love of nature led him to explore the habitats of native plants throughout the United States and Canada. On returning home he wrote extensively about the areas he visited and the plants he saw. His observations of plants over many years at various locations allowed him to eloquently explain their variations and merits. He was encyclopedic when it came to plants. He especially delighted in explaining differences in their growing habits including soil conditions, sun/shade exposure and other subtle factors that affected plant growth. So, as people have noted, he spoke for a long time about a single plant in detail hardly ever repeating what he formerly said. An example of the detailed information is the variation in flower petal number and width among the different separated populations of Magnolia virginiana in the swamps of southeastern New Jersey. In one article in the ACS Bulletin he described phototropism, geotropism, and negative geotropism; all of which he learned through self education. Tom networked with nurserymen and arboreta throughout the United States and was a great source of information about native plants.
The history of Dilatush Nursery dates back to the 18th century to a farm owned by his grandfather, and then his father, Earle. Originally potatoes and apples were grown, and in the 1920's a roadside farm market was opened and a business was developed to sell American holly (llex opaca).
Over a thousand large hollies from the wild were selected choosing only those with the brightest, most prolific berries, and the deepest green leaves (along with a few pollinator males). Tom's father became the area expert on hollies and was referred to as the "holly man" and Tom as "the younger holly man". Tom's memories of the late 1920s and early 1930s are not so much of the holly trees as the tall three-dip, 5-cent ice cream cones for which his father's farm market was locally famous.
Tom relates a family story about the well-known landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead who had much to do with the design of New York City's Central Park and Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. It seems that Olmstead's crew frequently stopped at the family farm market for snacks. Tom's grandfather arranged an exchange that resulted in a planting of unusual trees near his Victorian farm house in Robbinsville near U.S. Highway 130; among them were Magnolia accuminata and Gingko biloba.
Tom loved to travel especially to view plants in the wilderness. Often he made six or more trips a year frequently for weeks at a time to nearly every corner of the United States and Canada. He avoided interstate highways so that he could enjoy nature and loved making stops to observe and study plants along the way. He was intensely physical, with a wiry physique that was stronger than his appearance would suggest; and he had the endurance of a marathon runner. He intentionally visited the most remote regions of the country and used traditional surveying tools to find his way via triangulation and survey maps as his father had done.
While demand for large American hollies was decreasing, Tom was collecting and growing dwarf conifer cultivars and unusual companion plants to fill the raised display beds that were steadily expanded to receive them. The curved undulating berms were composed of a mixture of peat, coarse sand, old manure, and topsoil. A red gravel stone was used as a 'mulch' and this was effective in highlighting the individual plants.
Unusual success with transplanting and long-term establishment was obtained by digging, rearranging, and replanting the sales beds in mid spring and in early autumn thereby causing their root systems to become finer and more compact. This, combined with moving them between locations that had the same kind of soil conditions, allowed them to grow well in home landscapes as they did in the nursery sales beds. An explanation of watering, mulching, feeding and general requirements was provided for each customer.
Tom and Elinor greatly enjoyed working with older people who quickly realized that the beauty and low maintenance requirements of dwarf conifers matched their limited gardening abilities. Rossmoor Retirement Village in Jamesburg, N.J. was one place where Tom's soil preparation methods and plant choices prompted many residents to recommend his work to other residents with the result that within a l5 year period more than a hundred residents' foundation plantings were landscaped with dwarf conifers and other plants.
For about 15 years prior to retirement in 1999, Tom was much occupied with U.S. native woody plant research and procurement for a large private native plant garden project in the Taconic Mountain region of New York state. The garden's owners desired to plant specimens of almost all the woody species of the eastern United States that could be adapted to USDA Zone 5b-6a.
Several plants discovered by Tom are now in the landscape trade. Among them are Ilex opaca 'Maryland Dwarf' discovered in a batch of two thousand seedlings that Tom had grown under contract. It is a dense, shrubby female plant that grows to about three feet high and five feet wide. The leaves are glossy and it is a unique shrub groundcover that grows well in a variety of locations. Clethra alnifolia 'Tom's Compact' grows to be three feet high and wide and is the most dwarf and most compact variety of summersweet.
Mike Johnson of Summer Hill Nursery and Tom were good friends and were especially fond of discussing native plants. Mike has grown some of Tom's other discoveries including Chamaedaphne calyculata 'Tiny Tom' and 'Dew Drop', Juniperus communis 'LaHave and 'Nova Scotia' . Both of these junipers are very low and spreading. 'LaHave', the smallest of the two, was found in the LaHave islands area of Nova Scotia. Picea mariana 'Cape Breton' (the teardrop spruce) has a very compact habit forming an upright mound. It grows to about six feet tall in 15 years.
The Dilatush Nursery was notable for providing dwarf and slow growing conifers to the public and collector-hobbyists like us at a very early time. We have benefited from the work and efforts of Tom and Elinor, especially at a time when specialty conifers were not well known. Customers always received expert horticultural advice on plant culture and care.
Tom was one of the ACS's founding fathers. He credits Jean Iseli for getting people to meet and formally plan the Society's future and Joel and Ellie Spingarn for supporting the early efforts of the Society and providing home and hospitality for the first ACS meeting ever.
Tom Dilatush was a recipient of the 2000 ACS Award of Merit for Development in the Field of Garden Conifers.
Monday, September 1, 2014
A tribute to my dad...
A tribute to my dad... This is reprinted with permission of the American Conifer Society and the author:
Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)
Post a Comment