A Life’s Work: Don Dosser

Lower Wilmot's Don Dosser, one of the world's greatest rhododendron breeders, featured in Country Style.  Photography: Claire Takacs
Lower Wilmot’s Don Dosser, one of the world’s greatest rhododendron breeders, featured in Country Style.

Unless you live in the island’s northwest, most Tasmanians would be hard pressed to name the exact location of Wilmot. Visitors taking an alternative route to Cradle Mountain may know that by the time they reach the tiny hamlet you’re well on the way to alpine country. Even so, unless you happen to be looking for it – like the bus-load of hard core gardeners from all over the world last week – or visiting the artisan cider cellar door on Back Road, you’re unlikely to stumble on the surprising beauty that is Lockington.

As you wind your way through bush on Back Road – not that much wider than a car – you come to a gully with a little bridge that crosses Braddon’s Creek. It’s easy to miss the remarkable surprise to the right. Wattles and blackberries hog the foreground, but behind them, on the side of a steep hillside, you’ll see an extravagance of conifers, and the impressionistic purple, red and green palette of a man known locally as “The Man of Maples”.

Twenty years ago, when Victorian nurseryman Don Dosser retired to live in Wilmot, he brought the stock from his nursery with him in two semi-trailers. It took 18 months to find his block of paradise, consigned to scrub by most locals because of the steep slope and its blanket cover of writhing wild blackberries, groves of blackwood and silver wattle and marauding ferns. “Back then I could only hear the waterfall, I couldn’t see it,” Don recalls.

What Don could see was the perfect place to create the garden of his dreams. Blessed with good soil, high rainfall and a cool climate, the 3.8 hectare block was set back from the road, ensuring his passion would not be interrupted.

He set about clearing 1.2 hectares, constructing an amphitheatre of terraced paths, and finding a home for his established trees, conifers, rhododendrons, and rare maples, chosen as small tree companions to filter the light rather than “throw a dead shade”.  “I was 58 when I walked in the gate, and it was just a paddock full of blackberries,” Don says. “Jeez it was a mess. People said ‘You’re mad!’ I said no, I’m going to create a garden.”

Although Don might tell you he’s poorly educated (he left school at 13 to work in a joinery factory making doors and windows), Australia’s most prolific rhododendron breeder is more than a little bit clever. To date, Don has bred 148 rhododendrons that are registered by the Royal Horticultural Society in England, including his famous Lockington family. And, still, he points out, there are more in his garden to name.

“Everyone’s saying do another two to make it to 150, and I them tell I’ve been doing it for 44 years – I’m tired. You can’t just name them.”  It’s understandable that he might be just a little bit sick of it. It takes at least eight years to grow a plant from seed to flower – time that no one much wants to commit to these days.

Don keeps records of all his hybrids in two thick photo albums that are kept on the kitchen table ready for visitors. He built the hexagonal-shaped house himself, “so you can look out over every aspect of the garden”.  These are the views of a garden visionary who leads an otherwise solitary life. But as you turn the pages of his cherished red leather volumes you meet the many people in his life, gathered together as a much-loved family of flowers.

There are Uncle Arch and Pop Garrett (named after his uncle and grandfather); Peggy Charlotte (named after the lady Don once worked for who died of breast cancer), and the-raspberries-and-cream colours of Marie Day. “She’s a retired nurse who lives down the bottom of the hill,” says Don. “We had Xmas dinner together every year for 20 years, until last year when she went to visit family in Queensland.” There’s Doctor Peter Hewitt, the Launceston doctor who treated Don for throat cancer. And Johnny Mack. “He’s a truck driver”, says Don, though incongruously because the flower is very pink.

Don is most proud of his first rhododendron aptly named Lockington Pride. “I was real proud of that because I was only young and I bred a plant that I named that was in the books all over the world,” he says, the remembered excitement rising in his voice.

It was Don’s mother, a florist, who inspired his love of gardening. “She grew rhodies because they were out when other things weren’t, and she could use the flowers for wreaths,” says Don. He recalls taking her to a national flower show in the Dandenong Ranges where he met Australia’s then leading rhododendron breeder Karl van de Ven. “He bred one that year that was called Cup Day that came out on Melbourne Cup day. It interested me that a bloke bred a plant all on his own.”

Don went to work for Karl at his nursery in Olinda, in the Dandenong Ranges, were he learnt the art of propagating and grafting.   Twenty years or so later, Don returned to the flower show with his own rhododendron. “It was Lockington Pride. And it won, so I thought I was on to something here!”

Don named his winning bloom after a Yorkshire English village, the home of his great grandparents who immigrated to Victoria in 1860. At the Emu Valley Rhododendron Gardens in nearby Burnie, there’s a three-metre tall specimen of Lockington Pride – the highlight of the collection that Don has donated.

Lockington may not be a fashionable garden, but gardeners from as far afield as Japan, China, Britain, Canada and Germany seek out Don Dosser on Wilmot’s Back Road. “They read books and hear what I’ve been doing and they know me before they meet me,” Don says. “I don’t look for any of it.”

Nearing 80, and too frail to garden much, Don is satisfied with his magnum opus – “Lockington New Dawn”.

“I class that as my best”, he says.

Rhododendron breeder Don Dosser with his RHS rhododendron colour chart
Rhododendron breeder Don Dosser with his RHS rhododendron colour chart

Published in Country Style, March 2014, the Tasmania issue