Rhododendrons

I never thought the day would come when I would find myself designing gardens with rhododendrons; but that day has arrived and I must say I have changed my opinion on these dinosaurs of the garden.

The rhododendrons seemed to find me rather than me find them as for some reason I had a run of clients who requested them and also I was designing a driveway where the only solution was rhododendrons.

I think my reluctance in the past has been their slightly old fashioned look but I seem to be moving towards the older styles of planting and simplifying my planting palette to the good old tried and tested.

With so many requests for these plants I had to delve into the myriad of options available regarding varieties, sizes, colours and ease of availability. The more I researched them the more they began to grow on me, no pun intended. I have now streamlined my selection, mainly based on colour and size and have a few go to choices which I know will be easily available.

A main consideration when planting rhododendrons and azaleas is to check the ph of your soil to ensure it is acidic between 4.5-6.0. If the soil is alkaline the plants will suffer and you will have wasted time and money. It is possible to acidify the soil, if you are prepared to put in some work. Also when planting do not sink them too deep as they are shallow rooting.

Rhododendrons are woodland plants so appreciate shelter from strong sun and wind and a mulch of leaf mould or fine bark will help protect them and retain moisture.

I have restricted my choices to some of the large hybrids, yakushimanum varieties which are smaller growing, dwarf varieties and Japanese azaleas which are evergreen; I still can’t be won over by deciduous azaleas I find them too brash and there are other more interesting deciduous shrubs I would rather use.

Here are a few varieties I’ve been tempted by recently.

Large Hybrids 150-175cm
Marcel Menard – a sumptuous dark purple
Germania – deep, rich pink
Nova Zembla – jewel like ruby red
Cunningham’s White – very common but easy and quick growing.
Madame Masson – a more refined white than Cunningam’s , with a yellow throat.
Gomer Waterer – delicate mix of pale pink and white

Yakushimanum Varieties 80-100 cm
Dreamland – soft pink and white
Polaris – candy pink
Porzellan – white
Percy Wiseman – salmon pink, slightly taller growing than the other yaks

Dwarf Varieties 50-75cm
Moerheim – blue
Ramapo – purple
Dora Amateis – White

Azalea japonica 60-100cm
Geisha Purple
Mother’s Day – deep pinky red
Adonis – white
Silvester – mid pink
Vuyks Rosy Red – vibrant pink

I have generally been using the pinks, purples and whites which all work well together with the occasional inclusion of ruby red; I’m not so keen on the brash scarlet colours but you never know I might change my mind!

As for what to plant them with then that’s a more changeable feast, but I do find companions have to be carefully chosen as they don’t look great with just anything. They look good en masse under planted with spring bulbs or in a mixed shrub border with other acid loving plants such as Japanese maples. They look most at home with other woodland plants and sit happily with ferns and Japanese anemones and hostas look good too. I think in general it is best to keep the planting around them simple and uncluttered to allow the rhododendrons themselves to be the stars of the show. There is often the complaint that they only flower for a short period and then that is it, but when they are in flower they are certainly giving it their all and being evergreen they are offering colour all year round. If sited correctly and the appropriate size of plant is chosen and the surrounding planting takes over when the flowers finish then the rhododendron certainly deserves its place – as I said I never thought that would be coming out of my mouth; who knows I may start planting conifers next!