Time to Prune Your Rhododendrons, and Maybe Plant Some More

Rhododendron bloom time came early this year, like everything else after our crazy-warm winter, and the blooms are mostly gone.  That means it’s time to get out your hand pruners and give your rhodies the tender loving care they need each year to look their best.

Yearly Maintenance
This is THE perfect time to redirect your rhododendrons’ energies away from seedheads toward developing new branches, leaves, and next year’s flowers – by simply deadheading the spent flowers.  To do that, just snip off the old blooms about a half-inch above the emerging new growth, being careful not to remove that new growth by mistake.  It’s also a fine time to remove any dead branches in the shrub.

Rejuvenation Pruning for Full-Grown Rhododendrons
And what we see all too often in our region are old rhodies that have become leggy, overgrown for their site, and frankly unattractive – all problems that the wise and careful pruner can fix.   What’s not obvious to most of us is that rhododendrons naturally lose leaves – in fact, their leaves only live 2-3 years, by design.  So to make them look good in our gardens takes a bit of attention.

To make the shrubs shorter, more densely branched and ready to produce the most flowers next spring, there are two pruning techniques you can employ – either or a little of both.

– Remove one-third to one-half of all the major stems to down 6 inches or so from the ground, or to where they meet another stem near its origin at the ground.  While some pruning guides suggest removing ALL the stems this way, most experts warn that that extreme tough-love approach can result in plant death, and advise spreading the stem-removal process over two or three years – and I agree.  I’ve rejuvenated many rhododendrons over the years using the more gradual method, with great success.  Not only does this produce a better size and shape of shrub, but all the new leaves it stimulates look far prettier and healthier than the old ones I’ve removed.

– Alternatively, shorten each stem by up to a half its length (approximately), making the cut just above a whorl of leaves.

Got Enough Rhodies?
This is also a good time to assess whether your garden has enough of these dramatic, evergreen beauties.   Think about it!  Just remember that they’re woodland plants, so do best in dappled shade or no more than morning sun.

Above, a rhododendron has just finished blooming among other woodland plants in this naturalistic North Carolina garden.

And while we’re on the subject of rhododendrons, I’ll sneak in one more shot from the woods of North Carolina that I took just yesterday near Asheville.  It’s a native deciduous azalea blooming in one of the scrumptious yellow and orange colors that they’re known for.  What’s sometimes confusing is that they’re in the Rhododendron genus, as are all azaleas, in fact.