All the time people say to me; “Rhododendrons don’t do well or grow for me.” Right here and now I’ll tell you why that is so and how to fix it.
Why so many people have problems with Rhododendrons in their landscape.
Believe it or not, Rhododendrons and Azaleas are quite easy to grow and it only takes a few things to make them happy. There’s a fundamental secret about growing Rhododendrons in your yard or your landscape that cannot be overlooked and it cannot be stated strongly enough. Here it is . . .
Rhododendrons Do Not Like Wet Feet!
They cannot tolerate any kind of moisture standing or collecting around their root systems. If you have a rhododendron or rhododendrons in your landscape that are struggling go outside, stand back and look very closely at the location of your rhododendrons and run through this check list.
1. What is the soil like in the planting bed?
2. Is it good topsoil that drains really well?
3. If you take a shovel and scoop out a shovel of soil from that area will the soil easily crumble into a small pile of soil, or will it remain in one solid lump?
4. Is your rhododendron near a downspout or does the gutter overflow anywhere near your Rhododendrons?
5. Is the rhododendron near the back of the bed and has the soil in that area settled to the point that it is lower than the surrounding areas of the bed?
6. Do you have an automatic watering system in the bed or do you regularly water the plants in that bed?
7. How much mulch do you have in that bed?
8. Do you ever loosen the mulch in the bed or just keep re-apply fresh mulch over what’s there?
9. How deep were your Rhododendrons planted when originally installed in the landscape?
All of these things can contribute to an environment that is not super healthy for Rhododendrons and other plants, especially evergreens and Japanese maples. Make sure that you’ve seen My Guide about Buying Good Topsoil. You really need to watch that short video. It’s an eye opener about what some are passing off as good soil.
All Plants Breath through their Roots! Did You know that?
All plants need to have the ability to transfer oxygen from the air to their root systems. I know that sounds a bit crazy, but it’s true. That’s why when a plant is installed too deep in a landscape, or planted in a wet location, they struggle and often die. Some plants are more tolerant of soil that breathes poorly than others, but they all need to breath. Plants like rhododendrons, Japanese maples and other evergreens are much less tolerant of this than many flowering shrubs.
It’s important for you to understand how much rhododendrons dislike wet feet conditions and exactly what constitutes a wet condition. To illustrate what I am trying to explain to you, I’ll tell you “a real life story about my relationship with some rhododendrons”.
My Story of Rhododendrons and the Rock Farm.
Many, many years ago I was growing some plants with my two friends Larry and Dale. My backyard was filled with plants, Larry’s backyard was filled with plants and Dale owned a vacant lot so we filled that with plants. We had 705 rhododendrons in my backyard that we either had to sell or move to an area where they had more room. We decided to move them so we could later sell them for more money. We planted 600 of them in Larry’s backyard then ran out of room so we took the other 105 over to Dale’s vacant lot.
We had a lot of stuff already growing in Larry’s backyard and the soil was a bit sticky, but the dogwood trees and other plants seem to do well there. Because the soil was sticky digging a root ball when it was time to sell the plants was easy because the balls never fell apart. That’s a handy feature to have when ball and burlap digging plants.
Dale’s lot on the other hand was very, very different. It was all sand and gravel. Mostly gravel! Digging a root ball on that rock farm was challenging and you could literally see sparks coming off the spade as you hit the rocks in the soil. Many of those rocks were the size of a nice sized baked potato!
The soil was well drained, but during times of drought that wasn’t great because we had no water on that lot whatsoever. It was so dry one summer that some of the Chinese dogwoods that had been there for two years dried out.
The soil was hot, dry and as rocky as can be.
The 105 rhododendrons that we planted on that rock farm loved it!
They were as happy as happy can be and they grew like weeds. The 600 that we planted at Larry’s house did okay, looked okay but it took them at least an additional two years before we could sell them. We sold the 105 off the rock farm in no time flat but it took several years for the ones in the heavier soil to each reach landscape size so we could sell them.
It was right then and there that I realized how much rhododendrons dislike wet feet!
Two Winter Hardy Rhododendrons that Will Knock Your Socks Off!
Three years ago I decided to plant out some Rhododendrons and I was having a really difficult time finding small plants that I could line out and grow on to landscape size. That, by the way, is an on going problem in the industry with many different plants which is why I tell people just starting out, forget about growing plants in the field, just grow small plants in beds and sell them right out of the propagation beds. No digging and burlaping root balls! Just pop them out of the bed, put them in a box and drop them in the mail like this!
A Side Note . . . (I am easily distracted.)
We have brand new member who told me that she is really good at propagating Dark Night Spirea and just stuck 600 cuttings that will be ready to sell in August. Immediately I said; “I’ll take at least 400, let me know when they are ready!” I think she quoted me $1.18 each. And I’m still on the hunt for thousands of other plants!
But anyway, I’m in Ohio and I had to order rhododendrons from Oregon, and even then all they had available was a mixed bag of a number of different varieties so I was able to get 600 plants, but many different varieties. That worked out good because in that lot were some Olga Mezitt Rhododendron and some Spring Parade Rhododendron. I was familiar with Olga Mezitt but didn’t have a lot of experience growing them and I had never even heard of Spring Parade.
Immediately both of these varieties grew very well for me, out performing many of the old standard varieties that I had grown in the past. I was really impressed with both and we sold a lot of them last spring at our plant sale.
Notice that Olga Mezitt is a dwarf Rhododendron and often mistaken for an evergreen azalea. But it’s not, it’s a dwarf from the PJM family of rhododendrons which bloom much earlier in the spring than evergreen azaleas.
These two Rhododendrons, Olga Mezitt and Spring Parade are super, duper winter hardy!
Like much of the country the winter of 2013/2014 was super, duper cold with temps well below zero for days at a time and a low of 15 degrees below zero F. for at least one or two nights. It was brutal cold!
The rhododendrons that you see on this page, in these photos, spent the winter outside in pots, completely uncovered! Can you believe that? First of all, on my nursery there is no greenhouse. I grow nothing in a greenhouse, because . . . You Do Not Need a Greenhouse to Do this Business! I do recommend covering your plants for the winter, even though I don’t cover mine. My soil drains well I have my container areas about 8″ below grade and this winter truly was the test of how well that works. I’m a renegade, what can I say?
I took these photos in mid May of 2014, just weeks after the harshest winter that Ohio has seen in years. This truly proves how hardy these two Rhododendrons, Spring Parade and Olga Mezitt are. You can’t ask for more proof than that.
My niche is growing small plants in small containers and selling them for $4.97 each. If I root a cutting myself, and we do root tens of thousands of them each year, my profit margin on a $4.97 plant is super high. The cutting is about as close to free as you can get, the containers are less than 25 cents each and I figure the potting soil cost me about 15 or 20 cents per pot because I make my own potting soil. That makes for a nice, big, fat margin per plant. I like that.
And . . . and this is a great big “And . . .”
When I sell these plants and help a customer carry them to their car? I can carry three in each hand! That’s awesome! That’s a lot more fun than lugging a balled in burlap tree or shrub to somebody’s car!
But still, part of me wants to put at least 1,000 Olga Mezitt Rhododendrons and 1,000 Spring Parade Rhododendrons in the field to grow for the landscaping market. If I were to do that, chances are pretty good that I could sell them right in the ground to a local nursery who would send their crew over to dig them. Hmmmmm . . . I guess we’ll see.
Can you guess why that won’t happen anytime soon?
I am super pumped right now about buying as many rooted cuttings as I can get my hands on to put in small pots so I’m pretty sure this whole rhododendron idea will go to the back burner. Today I am expecting a box of hydrangeas and other small plants that I ordered from one of my customers in Georgia. $545.00 worth to be exact. And as soon as we get those potted, or before, I’ll order more from other customers. I have it in my head that I don’t have enough plants!
I don’t think I can be cured.
At this point I don’t suppose there is any cure for my affliction. Each day I undergo a Session of Donkey Therapy to help me deal with my plant buying addiction but the donkeys are really learning to appreciate plant sales because they get a loooooot of attention on sale days so I think they are conspiring against me getting any better. Can you blame them? One lady keeps bringing them treats! She loves Finnegan and Fergus!
Questions or comments? Post them below and I’ll come around to chat you up!