The Q&A Archives: Taming Overgrown Rhododendrons

Question: I've recently moved into an older home. The rhododendrons growing in front of the house are overgrown, standing about 12 feet tall. They need to be cut back dramatically; ideally they need only be 6 feet tall. The rhododendrons have a southern exposure and are healthy and full but the bottom third is woody without leaves. How should I go about pruning and cutting them back to accomplish this? Or, would I be better off to just have them removed and begin again? When should I do the pruning?

Answer: You can certainly renovate overgrown shrubs, but it's a comittment that will take some time. If you remove more than one-third of the live material on a plant, you'll stress it out, making it more vulnerable to insects and diseases. Plan on taking a couple of years to prune ech shrub into shape, and prune in late spring, after the plants have finished flowering. Just cut back the branches to a node, where you can expect two stems will grow where you've removed one. This will help the rhodie fill-in and look bushy, rather than straggly. If you plan each cut, your shrubs will maintain their vigor, and at the end of two seasons, they'll be a more manageable size. Here's a book that outlines the best approach to renovating overgrown shrubs: Pruning, by Christopher Brickell, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 0-671-65841-7. The book is loaded with illustrations to help you make the right pruning cuts.

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