Springtime Wonderland|The St. John place is alive with azalea color

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 2, 2010

Talk abut having a green thumb!

Robert St. John has planted 1,652 azaleas in the last 25 years, and he’s had only two to die — and one of those losses can be blamed on fire ants.

Robert and his wife, Jerry, live near the end of the road of Lake Claiborne, north of Port Gibson on Grand Gulf Road. He planted his first azaleas there in 1985, when he moved from Port Gibson where he served as an alderman for 16 years.

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His method of planting is probably the secret of the success of the survival rate.

“I have a big wash tub filled with water,” he said, “ and I dig a hole twice as big as the pot the azalea comes in. I submerge the root system in the tub, and when it gets soaked good I take it out.”

He loosens the pot-bound roots with his hands, gently, not with a knife, and puts the plant in the hole with about four inches of top soil, then puts dirt over that and waters it.

Mulching? He prefers oak leaves, but said, “Nature mulches most of mine.”

The first two years are crucial for azaleas, he said, advising each needs about an inch of water a week, “but if you’ll take care of them for about two years, they’ll take care of themselves after that.”

The St. Johns didn’t have a master plan: “We just started planting and it worked out good.”

They’ve built a walkway down the hill to a gazebo that overlooks the lake, but basically they’ve just used the natural terrain of the land. They’ve covered some steep slopes and hillsides which are hard to cut.

Robert prunes only the azaleas in front of the house, or along the walkways, and the rest of them he wants to “really get big. They don’t hurt a thing.”

He’s got just about every color available, except yellow, and he’s looking for that. His favorite is the Formosa, a lavender and bright pink hue. Most bloom for about three weeks in the spring, but he has some encores which flower throughout the year. He has four acres he could fill with flowers, but he plans to complete the plantings when he gets to around 1,800.

Robert grew up at Westside, south of Port Gibson, went to high school in town and graduated from Mississippi State with a degree in engineering. Jerry went to school in Red Lick and is from Lorman. Robert was manager of the Southwest Electric Power Association at Lorman for almost 57 years, and Jerry was an official with the Bank of Port Gibson (now RiverHills Bank) for 38 years.

When Lake Claiborne was being developed in the 1950s, they bought a lot, put a mobile home on it and would go there occasionally.

“It got to the point we were staying out there too much,” Robert said. “I told Jerry I was either going to have to give up the alderman’s post or move to Lake Claiborne, so Jerry and the children said, ‘We’re going to Lake Claiborne.’ We lived in the trailer while building the house. We sold our house in town.”

Both Robert and Jerry loved plants and gardening — “anything working with my hands, so we decided this would be a beautiful place just to plant azaleas all around,” he said.

He bought most of them from nurseries in Forest Hill, La. — “I could get 50 in my pickup,”  plant those, and go back for more. They bought some in Vicksburg.

Though he is retired, Robert, who is 86, finds plenty to do other than gardening. It’s all free work: he’s chairman of the board at Grand Gulf State Park, of the board at Lake Claiborne, on the board of Mosswood Country Club, is in the Lions Club, and a Presbyterian, yet he and Jerry find time to do 95 percent of the work in their azalea gardens and on the lawn.

They plant some flowers other than azaleas, for Jerry likes to have cut flowers to take for the sanctuary of the Presbyterian church in Port Gibson. She plants a few vegetables, especially cucumbers, “because I’m a pickle nut.”

Their love of the outdoors, of planting flowers, could be therapy or an obsession, but Robert thinks it’s mostly a hobby. He watches the plants every day in case something happens, or if a plant gets diseased. To make sure they get enough water, he had a well drilled, and at 97 feet hit an abundance of spring water.

“I never thought we’d get to this point from that first azalea,” he said, “but it’s something I love, I really do. I enjoy the beauty, and I enjoy others coming to see them. I don’t mind getting dirty, and that’s what it takes.”

Has he thought of branching out, of planting other shrubs?

“I might think of something else,” he said, “but I don’t know where I’d put it.”