Forgiving the Rhododendron (Updated)

June 25, 2020

Relocating to New England from England about four years ago seemed, at the time, (and often still does) like the landscape equivalent of a chef moving from Paris to Poughkeepsie.

More than anything, I get frustrated by the overuse of a relatively small palette of plants.

The primary target of my irritation is the rhododendron. At first I vowed to never use them, rip them out at every opportunity, and speak with every grower about the need to diversify. But with time, I have remembered that at Kew Gardens outside of London, The Rhododendron Dell was a magical place that was celebrated and visited by people far and wide.

Here in New England, they are ubiquitous. They are used as foundation plantings at every turn, often sited where they have little chance of success, and mostly in the most disgusting shades of candy or baby pink. They inevitably clash with the adjacent house or building color.

But as I have mellowed into my new life and home, I have come full circle again on the rhododendron – but only in good colors.  And only if I am really celebrating them for what they can do (grow in the shade and provide an excellent green backdrop or screening) and used sparingly and smartly.

I found this cover of Selvedge (an amazing publication about textiles) so inspirational. It feeds my passion for fashion and gardening. And the color of those rhododendrons is just Mwah! (insert fingertip kissing hand gesture – like a true Paris chef).
Forgiving the rhododenron - a beautiful cover from selvedge magazine

Rhododendron Update 1/3/20:

How is it that I wrote this post over 10 years ago?

How ever have I been blogging so long?  And did I ever actually plant any Rhodies?

No – But I did salvage a few that were meant to be removed, and 10 years on, I am glad they are still around.

This blog is a teenager now and true to form, it is mocking me. A dive into the archives always results in either shame session (what was I thinking and my god, why was I telling other people to do the same!), or an eye roll (at myself), possibly a big sigh of whatever.

Post renovation, I am planning a new garden.  The contractors had to access my back garden with large equipment and prior to the project, there was only a 4′ wide path to get there.  Just enough to drive the mower through – but no where near enough for the big equipment used to dig out foundations.

So they created a new path around the other side of the house.  The side of the house that was a no-mans land, but is now suddenly part of the garden.  Previously it had nothing but lily of the valley, a relatively healthy stand of hemlocks, some scraggy old rhododendrons and a ton of poison ivy.  But now, it is a patch that is wide enough for backhoe to get through and I can’t wait to make something of it this spring.

As I’ve been thinking over a plan, this picture (10 years later!) immediately came to mind.  Funny how inspiration can stick with you.  I it is also the first time I ever mentioned rhododendrons on this blog.  That seems significant somehow.

I love everything about this photo.  The dress – the lusty face – and matching rhodies.  I want a dress to match my rhodies.  Is that weird?  Like people who match their underwear to what they are wearing. Bizarre and so tiring.

New rhododendrons are in my future.  The bigger the better.

No candy pink. Purple, yellow, white burgundy.

get inspired by rhododendrons

Things I am wondering about Rhododendrons:

Do I need to improve the soil?  It is rocky but deeply covered in pine needles. I assume acidic.  Isn’t this the natural home of Rhodies?

And how can I layer them to make a dell? (dell. : a secluded hollow or small valley usually covered with trees or turf)

Are there any rhodies that smell great?  I’ve heard that most fragrant species are not particularly hardy; the exception is R. fortunei and its many hybrids, but supposedly the colors are a little garish and I am not down for that.

When I get the details sorted I’ll post again….but until then, I am researching woodland garden plants, dry shade plants, and varieties listed on the RHS rhododendron group .

REgister now!

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  1. Gwen says:

    Fortunately there is wonderful resource for Rhodies right in your backyard: Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton MA has TONS of rhodies. I’m no expert, just a hobby gardener, but I go there for my Rhodie questions. (I had to figure out how to prune my single lonely ubiquitous Rhodie. The builder HAD to put one in, of course.)

  2. Rhodies are absolutely beautiful! I love how their colors gently complement each other. Also, LOVE your website, very beautifully created.

  3. Nan says:

    I share your frustration with a limited regional palette of plants. I live in Nashville TN and our ubiquitous plant is the crape myrtle. A perfectly lovely tree, but like your rhodies, mostly the are same awful colors. I researched, discovered and planted three Vitex Agnus-castus (Chaste) trees, and they are a delight. I’ve also started buying plants online that match my zone that local nurseries don’t carry. Show us updates!

    • I will! It is about 70% planted and looks – well – less than 25% – the planting installed is meant to create a bit of a hallway effect (narrowing and encompassing) – but at the moment what is there is all less than 18 inches tall and the messy woods and all the fill brought in to create the area are quite exposed and haggard looking (especially in this summer’s drought). When the woods recover, and the plants grow a bit, I am excited to see where the remaining 30% really needs to go. Also – I discovered a rock ledge that I didn’t know existed along about 30 feet of one side of the garden… so I am still pondering creative solutions…

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