Milner Gardens

Partnership with VIU / Milner Gardens & Woodland

MARS is proud to support Milner Gardens & Woodland by donating plants and providing volunteer labour for maintenance and development of the Greig Rhododendron Species Garden.

This garden is the result of many years of planning and work through a unique partnership of Vancouver Island University, Milner Gardens and the members of all the American Rhododendron Society chapters on Vancouver Island.

The Species Garden offers the public a chance to enjoy the beauty and diversity of rhododendrons, as well as providing propagation sources for rare species and helping to conserve rhododendron species that are endangered in the wild.

In the following short video, Nanaimo chapter members Chris Southwick and John Deniseger introduce the Greig Rhododendron Species Garden on Shaw Spotlight’s “A Walk Through The Rhodos”.

Geoff Ball, Executive Director of Milner Garden and Woodlands, addresses volunteers at the Greig Rhododendron Species Garden in April 2023:

The Greig Rhododendron Species Garden Planning and Development:

The Grieg Rhododendron Species Garden originated with an idea at the opening of Milner Gardens in 1998 and moved forward in 2008, only to be stalled by an economic downturn. Then in 2013 it took on new life when the Vancouver Island ARS chapters agreed to work together with the two other key partners.

The Species Garden is located in a 0.25 ha (0.63 acre) area of Milner Gardens that was formerly forest.  Jim Cadwaladr, a retired Landscape Architect, donated his time and expertise to develop the design.  Much thought was given to which native trees would remain.  All trees were inventoried and a case was made for each tree, providing a variety of majestic old-growth trees, a nurse log, and some dead trees to provide habitat for birds and small animals.

The garden design features rhododendrons arranged according to six geographic regions, as well as two additional planting categories:

  • North America
  • Northeast Asia
  • Yunnan
  • Himalayas
  • Sichuan
  • Europe (Southern Europe and the Middle East)
  • Vulnerable species (species at risk in the wild)
  • “Milner Roots” (species used to create the heritage hybrids in Milner Gardens and Woodland)

Our intrepid MARS volunteers tackle everything from fence construction, to spreading tons of mulch, to planting rhododendrons and companion plants, to constructing shade-cloth shields to protect newly-planted rhodos.

Work is ongoing to complete and maintain the Garden’s collection of rhododendrons and companion plants, along with benches and interpretive signs.  Like all gardens, the Greig Rhododendron Species Garden is a work in progress, and MARS is pleased to provide our continuing support to help it grow.

We need volunteers!  If you can help, please contact Marilyn Dawson at or (250) 752-3694.

The Greig Rhododendron Species Garden in Progress:


After the site was cleared in 2016, approximately 460 cubic metres (600 cubic yards, or 40 dump-truck loads) of a special soil mix were brought in and spread.  An irrigation system was installed, and about 150 cubic metres (200 cubic yards) of mulch were spread by hand by volunteers.

The first planting in spring of 2017 included 160 carefully selected rhododendron species.  (When complete, the garden will house approximately 250 different species.)  The following spring, volunteers planted eighteen large specimen trees as companion plants.  The project is ongoing, and additional rhododendrons as well as a large array of perennials have already been planted.

Greig Rhododendron Species Garden News

May 2023:  The Shade House at Milner Gardens and What It Means for MARS Members
By Marilyn Dawson

Last month when MARS members voted to donate $2,500 to Milner Gardens and
Woodland to complete the newly built shade house, some questions suggested a
little background information was needed, particularly for newer members.
MARS has always had a close relationship with Milner, partly because the late
owner, Veronica Milner was a supporter of the chapter in its early days. In the
past 10 years, all the island chapters have worked with Milner to create the Greig
Species Garden which is entering a new chapter, Phase Two.

Photo by John Deniseger

Because of their proximity, MARS and Nanaimo RS have been the most active volunteers there, tending the new garden. Most recently, a few workers have
created the rhododendron shade house with initial funding provided by a Milner donor.

So, what is a shade house? This one is a sturdy structure 25’x30’ covered with shade cloth netting secure within a deer-fenced area. And very much needed. In recent years, all rhododendron chapters have faced the same problem – fewer growers – which means they have to propagate their own plants and unlike perennials, they take many months to set down roots in propagators and even then, will need possibly another 2-3 years to grow up to saleable size. It’s a dilemma that all island chapters are trying to solve. Where do you put the plants after they leave the shade house?

Photo by Glen Jamieson

For MARS, NRS and Milner, the answer is easy. In the 2500 square foot area outside the shade house but still inside the fence. In a few weeks, the newly rooted plants from last fall’s cut will be placed in the Milner shade house to sit out their first summer away from the hot sun and harsh winds.

MARS, NRS and Milner, whose parent is Vancouver Island University have worked out an agreement whereby all three parties will share equally in the use of the
shade house, according to the guidelines set down. This partnership is the envy of many island chapters; a good annual plant sale provides funds to conduct club meetings. This structure should provide much needed space and in the long term should provide a greater range of plants available to members and the public. There’s still work to be done before moving day, installing an irrigation system, for example. And no doubt there will be more refinements as time goes by, but any improvement will be shared by all three partners.


August 2020:  MARS Donates $5,000
By Marilyn Dawson

Just before the pandemic shut down all public gatherings, MARS members approved donating $5,000 in the name of all District One Chapters to the Greig Species Rhododendron Garden at Milner Gardens and Woodland. This was part of the proceeds from the 2019 Fall Regional Conference held in Parksville. Almost immediately
Milner shut down (due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Chapter Presidents look on as Linda Derkach presents cheque to Geoff Ball.

But recently with the garden partially open to the public, Linda Derkach, chair of the Fall Conference, presented the cheque to Milner Executive Director Geoff Ball at a gathering of chapter presidents.  The funds are earmarked for long-time care of the garden’s rhododendrons.

Read the complete article in the October 2020 Rhodovine

Since it opened officially two years ago, a work crew from the island chapters has turned out when asked to mulch, plant and do whatever is needed. But illness, work or age-related problems are creating dwindling numbers. For a few weeks this summer, four to five members helped get the garden in shape before it re-opened to the public but it is the same people every week.

MARS needs new volunteers to add to the Milner crew to spread the work around. Some jobs require more hands on deck. During the pandemic, all work is carried out under COVID rules.  To join the crew contact Marilyn Dawson at or

It’s not a glamorous task but it’s a good way to meet fellow gardeners and socialize while you work. Crew members are usually informed a week ahead of time and are not expected to appear for every call. Life does get in the way sometimes.


April 22, 2018:  The Greig Rhododendron Species Garden is Open!

After many hours of planning and hard work, on Sunday, April 22, 2018, more than 150 plant enthusiasts gathered to celebrate the Grand Opening of the Greig Rhododendron Species Garden.

The Species Garden is named after Ted and Mary Greig, recipients of the ARS Gold Medal.  Mary Greig of Royston on Vancouver Island was a pioneer hybridizer and propagator of rhododendrons, and many of her plant progeny thrive in Milner Gardens to this day.  The Garden was officially opened to the public with a ribbon-cutting by Jean Greig, the late Jim Greig’s wife:


Special guests at the opening  included VIU President Dr. Ralph Nilson, Chief Michael Recalma of the Qualicum First Nation, Geoff Ball, Executive Director of Milner and descendants of Ted and Mary Greig for whom the garden is named.

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