Glorious Rhododendrons

    • Get ready to plant your vegetable garden. Choose from the many varieties of tomato and pepper plants available now.
    • Hang up Codling moth traps now to reduce the number of wormy apples in your harvest this year.
    • Attract birds to your yard with bird feeders. Delightful gold finches will be happy to visit your thistle feeders, and rufous-sided tohees will visit seed feeders.
    • When you plant your tomatoes, put a handful of bone meal in the bottom of the hole to help prevent blossom end rot on the fruit later on.
    • Flowering dogwood trees are blooming now to help you choose a beautiful small tree for a focal point in your garden.

Glorious Rhododendrons

There are few sights more beautiful in the plant world than a mature rhododendron covered with large, rounded trusses of bright, colorful flowers. These large shrubs can be used to enclose the shade garden and give you flowers to enjoy each spring.

The rhododendrons that we are most familiar with represent a small portion of the rhododendron family. Varying from ground cover shrublets with needlelike leaves to large-leafed tree types, the more than 900 species comprise a very large family. While most of the species are native to eastern Asia — from Siberia to New Guinea — they also grow naturally in Appalachia as well as in our coastal forests.

Rhododendrons have been hybridized for more than a century. By crossing species, we now have rhododendron hybrids that are tough, adaptable and easy to propagate. Attractive foliage, vigorous, trouble-free growth and large, colorful flower clusters have been some of the goals of hybridization.

To successfully grow rhododendrons, you need the right soil and exposure. These plants are shallow rooted and need moisture and oxygen in the root area to flourish. They do best in soil with plenty of organic matter and good drainage. In poorly drained sites, build a raised bed or build a mound so that the rootball is above the existing ground level. Plants should be planted no deeper than they were in the container. It is better to err on the side of too shallow than planting them too deep.

Acid soil is also necessary for good growth. Check the pH of the soil and add soil sulfur, if necessary, to bring it down to 5.5 to 6.0. You can fertilize once or twice a year in the spring with an acid fertilizer, but established, healthy plants need little or no fertilizer.

Although rhododendrons like the shade, they need some sunlight in order to bloom. Three or four hours of morning sun are ideal, but they can also have late afternoon sun or filtered sun all day through overhead branches or trellises. Insufficient sunlight is often the cause of poor blooming and leggy plants.

Rhododendrons need water through the summer months. Keep cultivation around them to a minimum, due to their shallow roots, and use mulches to control weeds, conserve moisture, and provide more uniform soil temperatures. Mulches can be made of sawdust, decorative bark, straw, or other organic materials.

Rhododendrons come in a rainbow of colors from pure white, through shades of pink and lavender to bright reds and purples. There are a few yellow or cream-colored rhododendrons also. They all are welcome sights in the garden each spring.

Note: For over 35 years, I have written a garden column for The Willits News. I have been encouraged by many readers to compile these articles into a book, and I have done so. A Year in the Garden: Gardening in the Willits Area is now available at Sanhedrin Nursery.

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