Skip to main content

No-Nonsense Pruning Plus Attention to Detail

Fri, 04/12/2024 - 14:10
Henry Murray with his rhododendrons.
Durell Godfrey

In the summer months, under the immaculately tended giant rhododendron stand in Henry and Martha Murray's backyard on Further Lane in Amagansett, their young grandchildren can be glimpsed darting in and out of the canopy of fuchsia blossoms, visible one second, gone the next.

 It was not a given that these plants would have survived as long as they have. When the Murrays moved to the property, in 1991, the rhodies were already more than 25 years old — with the proper care they can live to 60 or 80 years old.

 In between learning about Daniel Boone, and Yale University, from Mr. Murray, who graduated from that venerable institution and served in the Air Force before working in business and real estate, a visitor also gleaned quite a bit of information about the plants, originally from Southeast Asia.

 He took up caring for them when he was about to retire and turn his attention to community concerns in East Hampton.

 Along with Jerome DeCosse, a surgeon who worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and New York Weill Cornell Center in the city, Mr. Murray, the former chairman of the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation, came up with a needs assessment list for the East Hampton community, which was increasing hugely, even a few decades ago. The most important thing they found missing was adequate health care, and their work formed the basis of the creation of a whole new hub of health care facilities on the South Fork.

 In addition to his community work, Mr. Murray was at one time president of the Maidstone Club, chairman of the Village Preservation Society of East Hampton, and a trustee and treasurer of the East Hampton Library.

 In 1991, once installed with his wife Martha Murray in an old saltbox that had been moved from East Hampton to Amagansett, they found resident rhodies there that had been planted in about 1964. Not afraid to take on the challenge, Mr. Murray decided to learn about their care, which meant first learning about gardening in general.

 As with other projects, he approached his rhododendron pastime with the same degree of fastidious observation and attention to detail he had brought to his working life. Once on the property, Mr. Murray, now chairman emeritus at the Healthcare Foundation, got an arborist and had a lot of trees moved, including a dozen yews (Taxaceae), which helped open up the terrace and create a visible backyard, as well as a barrier between their property and the property next door.

 Every spring, his gardener of 32 years, Silvanio Moro, adds two bags of Hollytone (60 Okpounds) around the 12 rhododendron plants to fertilize them. (Mrs. Murray did make it clear that as much as she admires her husband's thoroughness in caring for the plants, she cannot abide the color of the flowers. "My objection is to the fuchsia color and the size of the display. Pink or white would be calmer," she said.)

 In the fall when the leaves from his oak trees come down, Mr. Moro, at Mr. Murray's instruction, blows them under the rhodies, using them as mulch. Then, whenever black spots appear on the leaves, apparently the result of an iron deficiency, Mr. Murray gets rid of them by throwing some of the extra shingle nails he has in his garage on top of the mulch.

 After the bushes bloom, beginning in late May, he uses a hose sprayer to spray Infuse on the plants, which gets rid of any fungus. About eight to 10 years ago, he had three people pruning the plants. He himself prunes them all the time: "You've got to cut the dead off," he said firmly. A bonus for his family of his extreme pruning of the branches with flowers from underneath (the trunks can have a circumference of 14 to 15 inches) is that he has created space under the canopy. "The grandchildren made a fort in the middle of the rhododendrons: privacy and cover. No rain drops and no prying eyes," he said.

 Every two to three years the plants get lopped off at the top. They need shade for part of the day, which is supplied at the Murray property by their oak trees. Mr. Moro threads garden hose with wire to support the plants.

 One amazing thing that happens, which of course makes one think of triffids, or, at least, of something extraterrestrial, is the story Mr. Murray told a visitor of the rhodendrons that fell over but did not die, as he expected. Instead, the branches that were lying on the ground spouted new roots that implanted themselves as the branches continued to push forward and eventually up with new growth and flowers.

Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.