Category Archives: Spring

Growing and Caring for Rhododendrons and Azaleas

Azaleas can be either evergreen or deciduous. Deciduous Azaleas are known as Mollis or Exbury Azaleas. They bloom in the early spring with vivid orange and yellow colors. They can be grown from seed if the seeds are collected in the fall and sown on top of moist peat at about 70 degrees F.

Evergreen Azaleas are known as broad leaf evergreens because they are do not have needles. They bloom later in the spring, and are usually propagated in the fall over bottom heat, discussed in detail at Rhododendrons are also broad leaf evergreens and are also propagated over bottom heat in early winter.

The best time to prune Rhododendrons and Azaleas is in the spring right after they bloom. These plants start setting next years flower buds over the summer, so late pruning will cost you some blooms next year, so get them pruned as soon as they finish blooming. It’s also a good idea to pick off the spent blooms so the plants don’t expel a lot of energy making seeds, unless of course you’d like to grow them from seed. But keep in mind that they don’t come true from seed.

Seeds from a red Rhododendron are likely to flower pale lavender. Cuttings insure a duplicate of the parent plant. How do you prune Rhododendrons and what does pinching a Rhododendron mean? These are frequently asked questions.

Pinching is a low impact form of pruning that is very effective for creating nice, tight full plants when you are growing small plants from seeds or cuttings. Typically a Rhododendron forms a single new bud at the tip of each branch. This new bud will develop into another new branch, another bud will form and the process will continue. If left alone this will produce a very lanky plant with a lot of space between the branches forming a very unattractive plant.

So if you are starting with a plant that is nothing more than a rooted cutting all you have to do is pinch off this new growth bud as soon as it is about 3/8” long. Just grab it between your fingers and snap it completely off. When you do this the plant usually responds by replacing that single bud with two, three, or even four new buds in a cluster around the bud that you pinched off. Each one of these buds will develop into branches and eventually a single bud will appear at the tip of each of these branches, and of course you should come along and pinch each one of those off forcing the plant to produce multiple buds at the end of each of these branches.

The more often you pinch off these single buds, the more branches the plant will form, making a nice, tight, full plant. This is especially helpful with young plants such as rooted cuttings or young seedlings.

But what about larger plants, how do I prune them? I prune mine with hedge shears!!! I just have at it and trim them like I would a Taxus or a Juniper, and guess what? The result is a very tight compact plant loaded with beautiful flowers. My Rhododendrons are so tightly branched that you can not see through them, and that is the result of vigorous pruning with hedge shears. Sure you can use hand shears, and you’ll have a nicer plant because of it, but I just use the hedge shears because that’s the tool that I happen to have in my hand as I am going by.

Keeping Rhododendrons and Azaleas healthy and happy is a simple as understanding what they like. First of all they like to grow in a climate that suites their tastes. Many varieties of both don’t like it in the north, and to prove the point they will up and die as soon as extreme cold weather hits. Buy plants that are known to be hardy in your area.

Here in zone 5 (northern Ohio) the following Azaleas seem to do well. Hino Crimson (red), Stewartstonia (red), Herbert (lavender), Cascade (white), Delaware Valley (white), and Rosebud (pink). Hardy Rhododendrons include Roseum Elegans (pinkish lavender), English Roseum (pinkish lavender), Nova Zembla (red), Lee’s Dark Purple, Chinoides (white), and Cunningham’s (white).

How should you fertilize Rhododendrons and Azaleas? These broad leaf evergreens are laid back and like to take it slow and easy. Do not fertilize them with quick release nitrogen fertilizers, it could kill them. Instead give them an organic snack, like Millorganite or well rotted cow manure or compost. Millorganite is an organic fertilizer made of granulated sewage sludge.

No it doesn’t smell any worse than other fertilizers, and plants like it because it is plant and soil friendly. It won’t burn the plants, and it actually reactivates the micro-organisms in the soil. That’s a good thing. Most full service garden centers carry Milorganite.

A long time ago somebody let the word out that Rhododendrons are acid loving plants, and people are always asking me if I think their struggling Rhododendron needs more acid. The answer is no. Your struggling Rhododendron probably needs a great big gulp of oxygen around it’s root system.

Rhododendrons do not like wet feet. They don’t even like high humidity let alone wet soil around their roots. They like to be high and dry, and like an unobstructed flow of oxygen to their roots. You can accomplish this by planting them in a bed raised at least 10” with good rich topsoil. They will be smiling from branch to branch.

A few years back my friend Larry and I had several hundred small Rhododendrons that we were going to grow on to larger plants. We planted most of them in Larry’s backyard which is fairly good soil, but a little sticky. We didn’t have room for all of them so we planted the last 105 down the road from my house in a field we were renting. (Never heard of anybody renting a field? You should get out more.)

This location had absolutely no water for irrigating and the soil was very dry and rocky. Other plants at that location often struggled during the dog days of summer due to the lack of water, but those Rhododendrons were as happy as pigs in mud. They out grew the ones at Larry’s house by twice the rate and we sold them years earlier than the others.

My point? Rhododendrons don’t like wet feet. They do well in the shade, but contrary to popular belief they do even better in full sunlight.

Tips for Preparing a Planting Bed

If you are preparing beds for landscaping around your house this article should simplify the process for you. I say that because of everything that is written about this subject, some of it is accurate, some of it is just plain wrong, and much of it is much more complicated than it needs to be. I like to think of myself as simple Simon. I find the easiest, yet most effective way to do things, and they work.

Let’s assume that the area where you are planning your bed is now planted in grass. How do you get rid of the grass? Chemicals or no chemicals? Chemicals are easy, so we’ll look at the chemical method first.

My favorite chemical for killing grass and weeds is RoundUp, and used properly it is effective. Rule number one: Read the label on the package, and mix the chemical exactly as recommended by the manufacture. Rule number two: Assume that every plant that the RoundUp touches is going to die. It is a non-selective herbicide.

The first thing you need to do is mark out where your planting bed is going to be. Spend some time on this step. If you are landscaping around your house, give careful consideration to what is going to be planted in the bed, and then decide how large each plant is going to be when fully mature. You can keep plants trimmed to a certain size, but be realistic when you make these estimates. Trust me when I tell you, this is the number one mistake made by Do-it-yourself landscapers. People are just afraid to make those beds large enough.

Typically, a bed should never be narrower than 42”, and corner beds should be 12’ in diameter. Islands. If you make those little tiny island beds that I see everywhere I am going to come over to your house and snap you with a wet towel! The island bed in your front yard should be 20’ to 40’ long, and a minimum of 12’ in diameter on at least one end. The easiest way to mark out your planting beds is to buy a can of marking paint at the hardware store. Unlike most spray paint, this only works when the can is inverted, and it is designed specifically for painting lines on the ground. They even have cans that spray chalk instead of paint. I’ve always used the paint, it holds up better if it gets wet.

Once you have the outline of the bed established and marked, mix up some RoundUp and spray all the grass and weeds inside the bed area. Do not put RoundUp in a sprayer that you intend to use for other purposes. You need a sprayer that is dedicated for the use of herbicides. When applying the spray, be very careful not to let the spray drift onto the grass and other plants that you do not want to kill.

To minimize spray drift, adjust the spray nozzle so the spray pattern is narrow and the droplets are larger. A wide, fine spray pattern is sure to drift outside of the intended area. Also keep the pressure in the sprayer quite low. Pump it just enough to deliver the spray. High pressure causes the spray to atomize and drift. Apply just enough spray to wet the foliage. If you have liquid dripping off the blades of grass, you are applying too much. More is not better.

Once sprayed, be careful not to step in the area that has been sprayed. Many a people have had golden foot prints across their lawn because they forgot and walked through what had been sprayed.

This is the difficult part, and the part that many people do not get, so pay close attention. The only way that the RoundUp can possibly work, is if you leave it alone. Did you get that? Once you apply the RoundUp, don’t do another thing with that bed for 72 hours. That’s three very long days. I know you’re anxious, but this is the price you pay for not planning ahead.

RoundUp is a systemic herbicide, which means that it has to be absorbed by the plant, then trans located throughout the plant. It takes three days for that to happen. If you go digging and chopping, you might just as well skip the spraying step. Go build a compost bin while you’re waiting.

After three days the weeds and grass are going to look as healthy and happy as ever. Don’t let em fool ya. They’re as dead as dead can be. Providing the RoundUp didn’t get washed off by rain within the first 24 hours of the waiting period. Now you can dig and chop to your heart’s content.

However, the only digging that I do is to go around the edge of the bed and strip the sod back about 15”. Just peel off about 1” and flip it into the center of the bed. This makes it easier to edge and mulch the bed if you get the sod out of the way. Now for the non chemical method.

Mark out the outline of the bed as described above. Strip the sod back 15”, just like above. Since you aren’t using any herbicides I would dig down about 1-1/2” when removing the sod from the edges. Take the sod you stripped back and lay it in the center of the bed upside down and pack it down firmly. Now take newspaper or brown paper grocery bags and cover the entire bed area. Use 9 layers of newspaper. No matter what method you used, chemical or non chemical, you are now ready to fill the planting bed with topsoil.

Put 8 to 12” of good rich topsoil in the bed. Make sure the soil is higher in the back, closest to the wall, so the water drains away from the building. If you are creating an island planting make the center of the bed the highest point. Make sure the topsoil you buy is well drained and rich in organic matter. Buying topsoil is a tricky game, you’ve got to be careful and shop around. Topsoil is one item that you do not want to order over the phone, sight unseen.

This is what you are looking for when buying topsoil:

Topsoil that is rich in organic matter will be very dark in color. If the soil is light in color it is probably just fill sand. The other thing you’ve got to watch for is how well drained the soil is. Topsoil that has a clay base is poorly drained and sticky, and your plants will not be happy at all. They might even die if they are too wet. Once a clay based topsoil dries out it gets very hard.

Today most topsoil is run through a screener to remove the clumps, rocks, roots, and sticks. There is nothing wrong with buying unscreened topsoil, especially if you’ve visually inspected it, and have found it to be of good quality. Actually, really good topsoil shouldn’t have to be screened, but there is little of that quality topsoil to be had.

When you visit the yard where the soil is stock piled, scoop up a handful of the topsoil and run it through your fingers. If it seems to be grainy, it is probably good soil. But if it appears to tiny round balls, that can be smashed between your fingers, it is probably a clay based soil that will trap water during rainy seasons, and get as hard as a rock when it’s hot and dry.

Pay attention to how the soil is screened. Some machines just shake the soil over a set of screens to separate the debris, and others actually shred the soil. If the soil needs to be shredded, you don’t want it. Look closely at the pile that the raw soil is coming from. If the soil in the raw pile is as hard as a rock, that’s what the screened soil is going be once you get it in your beds. If it appears to be fairly loose, it’s probably good soil.

Put 6-8” of topsoil in your beds. You are now ready to plant. Did you notice that I didn’t get into rototilling and all kinds of extra work. Nor did I suggest that you add bone meal or any of those other goodies that the garden centers sell. I skipped the part about checking the Ph too. Ph is important, but I’ve found that good topsoil almost always has a suitable ph.

I’ve got a confession to make. In almost 30 years of growing, planting, landscaping and the like, I’ve never tested the ph of the soil on any project that I was working on. Is that smart? I don’t know, but I’ve been successful in my efforts, and I have landscaped several hundred homes and grown tens of thousands of plants.

It’s something to think about. What I’m really trying to say is don’t get caught up in too many details, and be careful who you take advice from at those garden stores. Many of those sales people were flipping burgers last week.

A Garden to Have and to Hold – Creating Miniature and Fairy Gardens

Miniature gardens…. a refreshing take on container gardening, an enchanting way to introduce children to the world of plants, and for those of you who must succumb to the changing of the seasons, a miniature garden is the perfect way to continue your love of gardening through the dismal days of winter. These little landscapes are simple and fun, can make a superb hostess gift or centerpiece for special occasions, and can even be therapeutic.   Continue reading A Garden to Have and to Hold – Creating Miniature and Fairy Gardens

Nature’s Support System

For all those who garden, it is common knowledge that gardening is truly therapeutic.  However, there may be some folks out there that are unaware of the many impacts that a simple plant can have on one’s state of mind.  There have been many studies linking the health benefits of plants in the work place and at home. What happens to the people that are not able to work or need assistance due to physical, emotional or mental disabilities?  How can they experience the many benefits that plants have to offer? The answer may be in Horticultural Therapy. Continue reading Nature’s Support System