Ten Comandments For Success With Rhododendrons

by Joe B. Parks

Rhododendron 'PJM' (Mezitt)
Picture by S & J Perkins
Rhododendron 'PJM' (Mezitt) in Salem, NH

Rhododendrons are truly the king of shrubs, a plant for all seasons, a plant with more garden versatility than almost any other member of the plant kingdom. Other shrubs, too, have their moments of glory but few and far between are those that can compete year around with rhododendrons and none, no not a one, offers such a vast palette of colors and textures to the gardener. Although rhododendrons won't grow just anywhere, once their simple needs are met, they will prove over and over again to be a tough plant that rewards its caretakers generously.

Like any other plant - or animal for that matter - they do have their own set of needs but if you meet these at least half way, rhododendrons will easily become the backbone of your garden. If you follow the suggestions below, you will be well on your way to having the finest rhododendrons possible.

I. Take the time to learn something about the incredible variety of rhododendrons that are available.

Rhododendrons species grow in the wild from the cold of the arctic to the heat of the tropics; from the ocean shore to high mountain tops; and from only a few inches tall to 80 foot trees. These have been used to hybridize tens of thousands of varieties for our gardens. Somewhere in this huge variety there are bound to be rhododendrons that will do superbly well in your garden; take the time to find out something about what is available. One good way to learn more about these wonderful plants, is to join the Rhododendron Society. See elsewhere on this homepage for detailed info on joining.

II. Learn the recipe for rhododendron success.

The recipe for rhododendron success can described in a very few words; choose a plant that is suitable to your area, prepare a moist but well drained, acid soil with plenty of organic material and lastly, remember that some rhododendrons do best in shade, others do best in the sun. By learning their needs, you will have a solid basis for success.

III. Choose a rhododendron for its overall beauty, not just its flowers.

With rare exceptions, flowers last less than two weeks. On the other hand, the plant will be there in the landscape for all 52 weeks, so it is important to choose a rhododendron that will look good in your garden throughout the year. Beware particularly of leggy plants. Look for plants that are compact appearing and which (if an evergreen type) retain their leaves for two or more years. Or if you are buying deciduous azaleas, be sure they are both insect and disease resistant so they will continue to add to the summer landscape after the flowers are gone.

IV. If your rhododendrons do poorly - or even die - don't become discouraged and give up.

Gardening is great fun, a journey of discovery, a joyful adventure, a learning game. Like everything in life, there are both successes and failures for the expert as well as the tyro (sometimes the expert is just someone who keeps quiet about failures). One of the greatest joys of gardening is in discovering how to be successful in growing something others consider "difficult". Learn from your failures just as surely as you do from your successes and you will be well on the road to some of the greatest pleasures in life. Lastly, remember too, like some people with whom you never seem able to make friends, some plants just will not grow for you regardless of what you do or how hard you try.

V. Until you have developed some experience, buy only plants that you have seen and have learned something about.

Stick with locally grown plants that are known to be "good doers" in your area. An example of a "good doer" is Rhododendron 'PJM'. To some people, 'PJM' is a dirty word but this is one tough baby that will even flower in USDA Zone 3. It will grow in full sun and is particularly lovely in the winter landscape with its deep russet leaves. It now has many easy to grow, cousins that offer much to anyone who wants an easy, low maintenance rhododendron garden.

VI. Choose plants whose flowering season suits your life style.

If you spend your summers at the beach, then choose rhododendrons that will be at the their peak before you leave for the summer. Even in cold New Hampshire, by choosing the proper varieties, rhododendrons can be had in bloom from mid-April until the end of July. In the warmer parts of New England, evergreen azaleas can be at their height of beauty much earlier. The choices are many and only limited by your imagination.

VII. Look around you to see what others are growing.

Ask questions of those who are knowledgeable. Join the American Rhododendron Society and you'll find many loquacious gardeners willing to spend all day telling you about their plants and experiences if you'll let them. Even more importantly they'll also invite you to visit their gardens and you'll have new opportunities to learn.

VIII. If a certain rhododendron or azalea does well in your garden, consider other similar ones when adding to the garden.

The old saying that "Nothing beats success." is still true. There are many closely related rhododendrons on the market. For example there are hundreds of hybrids of R. yakushimanum. The same is true of R. dauricum, R. carolinianum and many others. Although they may have different plant habits, different leafage, flowers of different colors, etc., under the "skin" hybrids of a particular species are more "alike" than "unlike". Of course this means that their needs and care are similar. Thus, success with one member of the group can well mean that other close relatives will also do well for you.

IX. Choose those plants that give you the greatest pleasure.

No one sees your garden more than you. In spite of what the experts may say, you are the one, not they, who must be satisfied. In the end, you are the only one who knows what is "right" and "wrong" for you, what truly satisfies your innermost desires and what is beautiful. It is an age old truth that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and musings to the contrary by a far off guru, or even those of passers by, should be thought of as just that. You are the one who must be satisfied, you are the one whose eyes must most often find beauty in your garden; in short you are the final arbiter of what is beautiful in your garden.

X. Try something different.

Now please don't misunderstand, I don't mean anything as absurd as trying to grow tropical vireya rhododendrons outdoors in New Hampshire. But consider; if someone had not tried something different, there now wouldn't be tens of thousands of rhododendrons and azaleas growing on the limestone Niagara Escarpment, nor would there be any rhododendrons growing in the LenDonwood Gardens in northeast Oklahoma. In fact there might not be any rhododendrons in our gardens at all. Try something new and different for it is the sort of spice that brings the ineffable joy of anticipation to gardening.*

Note that this article has been adapted for the benefit of the members of the Massachusett Chapter from work being prepared by Joe Parks. This does not constitute an official endorsement by the American Rhododendron Society Massachusett Chapter of the material being published by Joe Parks.

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