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Rhododendrons for Long Island Gardens

Rhododendrons have always had a special charisma. They developed a reputation for being the royalty of shrubs, probably because they were an expensive indulgence by the owners of the great estate gardens of Britain and early fine gardens in the United States.

William R. Coe developed his estate and gardens at Planting Fields after World War I by importing hundreds of rhododendron plants from England. Today a wide variety of rhododendrons is available in nurseries to be enjoyed by many Long Island gardeners. Visits to Planting Fields in April until early June acquaint you with great numbers of handsome flowering rhododendrons and azaleas, as well as many other fine flowering trees and shrubs.

The genus Rhododendron is extremely large, with 900 to l,000 species found growing in many parts of the world. The largest numbers are native to Japan and in mountains and valleys from China to India. Only a handful are native to America's forests, valleys and mountains. One of these, Rhododendron catawbiense, a native of the Smoky Mountains, was introduced to England about l860. This hardy species was crossed with other more tender species from China and gave rise to a host of hardy hybrid rhododendron varieties. These "ironclads" were the principal varieties imported by Coe and others for their gardens at the beginning of the century. Many of these fine old hardy varieties are readily available in nurseries today. ‘Roseum Elegans', 'Roseum Pink' and 'Catawbiense Album' and are still highly recommended.

Rhododendrons are popular in the Pacific Northwest, where the rainy humid environment and mild winters are ideal for their growth. Hybriditists in Oregon and Washington, as well as several successful breeders in the Northeast, introduced many new varieties that rhododendron enthusiasts eagerly sought for their gardens. Perhaps the most striking development of beautiful hybrids hardy for the Northeast was made by Charles O. Dexter, who carried on a massive breeding program at his estate in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Making extensive use of the Chinese species Rhododendron fortunei, Dexter produced a remarkable number of hybrids characterized by dense foliage, large stature and flowers of superior size and color, many of which are fragrant. Notable among the Dexter hybrids are 'Scintillation,' 'Betty Hume,' 'Parker's Pink,' 'GiGi,' 'Mrs. W.R. Coe,' 'Wheatley' and 'Westbury.'

Many of the more tender varieties, grown reliably in England and the Northwest, find the winters on Long Island more severe than they can stand without injury or winter kill. Unfortunately, some varieties available in garden centers on the Island, shipped here from West Coast growers, are not always reliably hardy. They should be tried only in the most protected locations.

An excellent way to become acquainted with rhododendrons best suited for Long Island gardens and to learn how to grow them is to attend the meetings of the New York Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. They are held at Planting Fields Arboretum. Visitors are cordially welcomed. If you talk with Rhododendron Society members, you will soon learn the varieties they consider the "good doers," or most reliable, in their gardens. Some of those considered best for dependable hardiness and performance are listed in Table 1. Ensure success with newly purchased rhododendrons, or any other shrub or tree, by proper planting and after care. The old adage of preparing a five-dollar hole for a 50-cent plant is still good advice. It is imperative to dig a hole at least three times the diameter of the root ball. It is good practice to prepare an entire bed area at the same time by incorporating organic matter (composted materials or peat moss) and rototilling the area to obtain a uniform soil consistency.

A plant should be placed with the root flare or root collar set at or slightly above the natural grade. The hole should be only as deep as the depth of the root ball. This insures that the root ball rests on firm soil to prevent settling after planting. Rhododendrons are surface rooting plants whose roots occupy the upper 3 - 5 inches of soil and need a loose, porous soil to permit adequate oxygen and moisture penetration for the roots. When the hole is filled and the soil is tamped around the root ball, form a 4" deep "saucer" with a rim of earth about 4" high around the plant "pocket." This helps facilitate watering the first month or so. This should be removed after a few months. The rule of thumb is not to fertilize newly planted shrubs until one year after planting. More on Rhododendrons.

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