The sun is finally shining, the soil is warming up, seeds are bursting forth and the hummers are here, along with the bumblebees! Isn’t it grand!

As is the case this week, many of my columns come from questions from friends and readers about various things. One of the most frequent is about rhododendrons and azaleas. How they grow, what to feed them, etc.

The first thing is that rhododendrons are azaleas. They are just part of the azalea family so what applies (in almost all cases) to one, applies to the other. This has caused some confusion because people think these are two separate kinds of plants. Most rhododendrons tend to be evergreen and have larger leaves, while most azaleas tend to be deciduous with smaller leaves but there are many exceptions to this generalization. A majority of the plants you see prospering in Maine are evergreen.

Rhodies like acid soil so they do quite well in Maine. Our rain these days is like fertilizer for the plants because of its acidity level due to energy production pollution transported from the Midwest. If you have acid-loving plants, this is helpful, but it is not if you are trying to grow plants that like alkaline soil or neutral soil, or if you are a fish.

Rhodies like normal or somewhat rich, organic soil that is well-drained but moist. Many can do well with just partial sun, about four hours a day, but others will become “leggy,” meaning that their branches will grow long as the plants reach for the sun, so you will not keep them in a compact shape.

Prune at right time

Overall, these plants are good as foundation plantings, the bigger and taller ones can be used to create a hedge around gardens. The smaller and more compact ones can be used as a visual focal point in a garden. They are useful in many ways, and they range from smaller forms at 18 to 24 inches, to larger specimens at 6 or 8 feet tall and as broad. As a general rule of thumb, rhodies grow about as wide at maturity as they do tall. So some care should be taken when planting to allow enough room sideways for the plants to mature.

They can be allowed to follow their own growth patterns, or they can be pruned to achieve more symmetrical shapes. Pruning should occur as soon after blooming as possible. Cut just above a cluster of leaves if possible. New growth for next year’s leaves and blossoms begins soon after this year’s bloom. So, if you wait too long, you will be cutting off next year’s blossoms.

As well as differences in size, the color range is now fairly wide: from whites and creams, both with or without color accents, to lavenders, pinks, reds and yellows.

Since our winters, as was exhibited in the winter of 2003-4, can go well below the usual Zone 5 temperatures and this is a plant you will not want to replace, look for Zone 4 plants. You can go with Zone 5 if you are willing to heavily mulch them each year or ready to replace them and wait a number of years for the size to return.

The Maine Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society has compiled a list of cultivars that do well here. (Please see the related article.)

I discovered two very helpful tools for keeping healthy rhodies. If we do not receive substantial rainfall in the weeks preceding the year’s first freeze, water them diligently. Most evergreen rhodies are lost in early spring because they just didn’t have enough water to see them through until the ground thawed. The second is a product called Wilt-Pruf. Toward the end of October or in the first two weeks of November, you spray it on both the tops and bottoms of all the leaves. It provides a seal to help prevent moisture loss. Moisture loss occurs when the weather warms during the winter (Think January thaw here.); the plant’s leaves perk up and stand up. Each time they do this, it takes moisture and that moisture then evaporates from the leaves’ surface. If this happens too many times, the plant will die from lack of moisture before it can get anymore to its roots because the ground is still frozen. The Wilt-Pruf helps seal the water inside the plant. It also protects, to some degree, from winter wind damage.

Don’t invite the deer

Do remember that deer love rhodies, so planting them at the edge of unfenced woodland areas is asking the deer over for dinner. A friend told me that in the case of shrubs and small bushes that deer seem to feed on, he protects them by putting netting over the plants after the ground has frozen and removing it in early spring. He uses the kind of netting that many people use to protect fruit trees from birds. He said the deer come to eat but when their noses hit the netting, they shy away.

So until next time, enjoy the sun we have all waited for, keep your bird books handy as I have had reports of both indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers, watch for aphids on the roses and lupines, and keep up the slug patrol. The warmth has made them even more hungry for your hostas and dahlias. Enjoy the warm earth as it moves through your fingers even if you are pulling weeds. It makes it an easier chore!

Happy gardening!

Jody Goodwin has been gardening for more than 20 years. She lives in Turner with her husband, Ike, her two dogs and two cats. She can be reached by writing to her in care of the Sun Journal, 104 Park St., Lewiston, Maine, 04243-4400 or by e-mail at [email protected]
Choosing rhododendrons, azaleas

These rhodies and azaleas have proven hardy in Maine, according to the American Rhododendron Society in a list compiled by the Maine chapter.

More information is available at www.rhododendron.org.

The society’s Public Education Committee asked chapters to compile lists of the best performing rhododendrons in their areas. The list below give plants with good form, foliage and flowers that are hardy and resistant to pests and diseases for the given area. The listed plants have proven their ability to perform well in members’ gardens and are recommended for use in other gardens.

Elepidotes: (large-leafed evergreens)

‘Ben Moseley’

‘Besse Howells’

‘Hachmann’s Polaris’

‘Janet Blair’

‘Nova Zembla’

‘Percy Wiseman’

‘Ponticum Roseum’

‘Scintillation’

‘Summer Snow’

‘Yaku Princess’

Lepidotes: (small-leafed evergreens)

‘April Gem’

‘Arctic Glow’

‘Ginny Gee’

‘Laurie’

‘Mary Fleming’

‘Patty Bee’

‘White Surprise’

‘Windbeam’

PJM Group

Deciduous azaleas:

‘Frank Abbott’

‘Gibraltar’

‘Golden Lights’

‘Jane Abbott’

‘King’s Red’

‘Lollipop’

‘Weston’s Innocence’

‘Weston’s Lemon Drop’

Evergreen azaleas:

‘Hershey’s Bright Red’

R. yedoense var. poukhanense


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.