Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
February, 2006
Regional Report

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These beautiful azaleas may entice you to plant them in your landscape, but they are florist azaleas that might not be hardy in your area.

Are Rhododendrons and Azaleas Right for You?

As the home and garden shows start to design and install their display gardens, I'm always amazed at the vibrant colors that entice our interest in new and exciting plants. Among the most frequently asked questions that I receive at these shows is, "Where can I buy those azaleas and rhododendrons to plant in my landscape?" Their vibrant colors in pink, purple, orange, red, and white make gardens come alive in the spring.

If you're a native to the region, you have already learned the lesson of planting azaleas and rhododendrons in our climate. They will not grow as successfully or prolifically as in the east, west, and southern regions of the US. In those areas they thrive with a minimum of care, often reaching tree size.

There are many factors that challenge us to grow azaleas and rhododendrons in our area. Winters can be very cold and dry. Soils are often too alkaline. Poorly drained, heavy clay soils are not conducive to good root growth. Lack of humidity and drying winds can make plants succumb.

Tips for Success
If you are determined to grow evergreen rhododendrons in our region, the H-1 hybrids are cold hardy to minus 25 degrees F. Look for varieties such as 'Nova Zembla', 'Alba', and 'America'. These have the classic broad leathery leaves and large showy clusters of blooms in June and early July. Just be sure they are planted in well-drained soils that are amended with generous amounts of compost and sphagnum peat moss. Keeping the soil on the acid side is also important. You can add applications of sulfur or aluminum sulfate to reduce the alkalinity and keep the soil acidic.

Another group of evergreen rhododendrons that are selected and bred from species more accustomed to our climate and soil types is the 'PJM' hybrids. The success of 'PJM', with its small, glowing lilac flowers led to experimentation with others such as the dwarf 'Ramapo', 'Laura', and 'Olga'. These varieties have smaller, leathery leaves and smaller but abundant flower clusters in April and May.

If you want to grow azaleas, they too prefer the same well-drained and acidic soils. Look for the hybrid selections, such as the R. exbury hybrids or Northern Lights series. They are hardy to USDA zone 4 if protected from afternoon sun and drying winds. There are many enticing colors in yellow, gold, orange, rose, and white.

The keys to success in growing azaleas and rhododendrons are consistent attention and care. Protect them from wind and drought conditions, keep the soil acidic, be sure the soil is well-prepared ahead of planting and that it's well-drained. I like to use pine needle mulch mixed with sphagnum peat moss around the plants year-round. It helps to maintain uniform moisture, and the needles won't blow away since they knit together nicely.

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