The Q&A Archives: Rebirth of Rhododendron

Question: I have a rhododendron plant that is about 15 feet high and 6 feet wide outside my house in the front yard. It was there and healthy when I bought the house 10 years ago. I'm amazed that it's still alive because I thought that I killed it four years ago. After fertilizing the plant by sprinkling plant food onto the roots and watering it afterwards, I notice that the plant took an immdiate change for the worse soon after. Almost 2/3 of the plant dried up and looked like it died. To my amazement, much of the plant is alive again. New bulbs have grown in and replaced the dead bulbs. I'm afraid to cut or do anything to the plant now that it's come back to life.

I'm sure that there is a way to upkeep this plant and make it the center of attention of my landscape. It's big and beautiful and would be a shame to lose it. So, what's a person to do? Right now there's new bulbs sprouting out from last season's flowers. Should I pick off the dead, dried up flowers around the new bulbs?

Answer: As yours has proven, old established rhododendrons are pretty tough plants. In general, they are not heavy feeders and do quite well with only minimal care: a few inches of organic mulch such as shredded bark year-round (keep it a few inches away from the stems) and perhaps some careful watering in times of drought. If you do water, do not allow the soil to become water logged -- these plants like a moist but well-drained soil and will "drown" if kept too wet. Basically, it sounds like your plant is growing well now, has recovered from its "incident", and is preparing to bloom again this spring. To be honest, I think this may be a case of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." These plants are light feeders so don't need much fertilizer if any, and are very shallow rooted so they resent any type of soil disturbance around their roots; they also prefer an acid soil so be careful to keep lime away from the root zone. If you wish to fertilize it, use a slow release fertilizer intended for acid-loving plants such as Hollytone according to the package instructions, keeping in mind that too much fertilizer can be detrimental. After it blooms, you might want to remove the faded blossoms (be careful not to damage the new growth starting in behind them) but it isn't strictly necessary. If you want to remove the left-overs from last year you may do so but be careful not to damage the new buds for this year's growth. Enjoy your plant!

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