About Rhodies

Entering Rhododedron Trusses in a Flower Show

The following advice on preparing a truss for showing was written in 1983 by Evie Cowles for the Mass. Chapter of the Rhododendron Society Newsletter. It is a useful guide for those who wish to enter a rhododendron truss in a flower show.

1. Perfect condition is essential. This means healthy, unblemished foliage to set off the florets.  If you think of the leaves as a frame for a picture, you will appreciate how insect bites or browning reduces aesthetic appeal.  The large-leaved variety, ideally, is presented as a truss sitting on a perfect circle of leaves.

2. Blossoms should be open, but not over-mature.  One with a still-closed bud is preferable to another with florets on the point of dropping.  This particularly applies to the selection of azaleas. 

3. As with most cut flowers, rhododendrons benefit from a 24-hour hardening-off period to prevent wilting during the show.  The stem is trimmed before plunging the truss up to its neck in lukewarm water. Set the truss in a cold, draft-free spot for 24 hours. If a heavy rain is predicted before the show, cut your perfect trusses and extend this for a few days.

4. Before the truss is placed on display, it’s a good idea to make a fresh cut of the stem base. 

5. Very early rhododendron varieties can be shown out of season if they have been kept in cold storage.  The truss is stored dry in a sealed plastic bag in a refrigerator until the day before the show.  (It is also helpful to inflate the bag by blowing air into it, as if it were a balloon.  This will prevent the plastic from damaging the tissues of the truss).

 6. All the care in the world up to this point is useless if the trusses are bashed en route to the show.  For a short drive, it’s fine to lay them in shallow boxes.  For a longer distance, it’s better to put them upright in water in pop bottles or cans that are braced to prevent tipping or crowding.

7. If you have a truss of an unusual, difficult, or particularly beautiful variety, even if the foliage is in poor condition, enter the truss and you will likely get at least an Honorable Mention.  Many times, your newest plants are still quite small so that if gypsy moths or weevils chew the foliage, there are not a lot of other trusses to choose from – and these are the very cultivars that others are eager to see.  So be brave and enter your new or unusual less-than-perfect trusses.

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Caring for Small Rhododendrons

By Joe Bruso

Presented here is a guide for caring for small rhododendrons.  

In the United States, the two predominant methods of propagating hybrid rhododendrons are by rooting cuttings and by tissue culture.  The plants produced from these two methods need special care their first 1-2 years in order to have a high success rate.

How to Kill your Small Plants

Dig a hole in the landscape, plant them, water them once then forget them.  Alternately, leave them in their pots in full sun and forget to water, or over-fertilize them.

Proper care can be divided into 2 timeframes:

  1. First Summer
  2. First Winter

First Summer

Key to Success:  Prevent desiccation.

The soil around your plants should be kept moist at all times.  Letting it dry out completely is the surest way to kill them.  This is especially true of plants grown in a medium with a high percentage of peat, since once peat dries out completely, it becomes very difficult to re-wet short of soaking in a bucket of water.  

The two most common ways to prevent desiccation are to keep the plants in pots and water daily or as needed, or plant them in a “nursery”.  A nursery is a prepared bed with amended soil, at least partial shade, no tree root competition, and with the plants relatively close together.  Average sized rooted cuttings can be planted a foot or so apart.  This simplifies care, especially watering.  The nursery should be watered every 2 days or so at first, gradually decreasing the frequency as the plants become established and/or as weather dictates.  Rhododendrons can be kept in such a nersery for 2-4 years before they crowd eachother and need to be moved

Whether kept in pots or in a nursery for the summer, they should be located in a partly to mostly shaded location.  The north side of a structure is an excellent location.  High shade from oak or pine trees is also great.  If they must be exposed to direct sun, early morning sun (as on the east side of a structure) is preferable to noontime and evening sun.  The more sun your plants get, the more often they will need to be watered.  Avoid deep shade, as found in a dense grove of white pines with low hanging branches.

First Winter

Key to Success:  Protect from extremes of Winter temperature, sun & wind.

A commonly used practice is to build a simple plywood box to cover the plants.  It can be small enough to cover one plant up to the dimensions of an entire sheet of plywood or larger, depending on how many plants you have.  Construction with screws will make taking it apart easier.  The box needs no bottom.  Potted plants are placed as close together as possible on the ground inside the box.  Mid-November is the usual time of year for this.  The pots need to be well watered before covering.  Put a mouse trap or some rodent bait inside the box to guard against mice & vole damage.  A slight gap (fraction of an inch) should be left on one area of the top to provide minimal ventilation.  Bank woodchips or bark mulch around the base of the box to cover any gaps between the wood and the ground.  If you have planted your plants in a nursery, the box can be built or placed over the nursery.  

After their first protected winter, your small rhododendrons will be much more able to withstand the rigors of winter without special protection.  Protecting them as described above for another year will still be beneficial, however.  After their first or second year of protection, they can be handled in one of several ways:

  1. Re-potted and grown on in larger pots for another year.
  2. Planted in a nursery.
  3. If large enough, planted into the landscape.  

Re-Potting Considerations

Small rhododenrons are usually started in an “artificial” medium – one composed of peat and pearlite for example.  Rhododendron roots can be slow to grow out of  a medium they are used to and into a much different medium.  When repotting into larger pots, one should include in the new soil some of the ingredients found in the medium the plant was grown in (i.e., peat and pearlite) mixed with soil as it exists in their future nursery or planting location.

The pot should be large enough to easily contain the root ball plus allow you to put new soil all the way around it.  Avoid pots that are too small for the root ball such that you have to jam the roots in with little room to add new soil.  Alternately, avoid oversized pots in proportion to the root ball.  Pull the roots apart as much as possible when either repotting or planting into a nursery or the landscape to help the roots to spread out into the new soil.  Little to no fertilizer is required at this time.  Better to err on the stingy side than over fertilizing, which can be lethal.  A small amount of slow release fertilizer works well.

Summary

The keys to success with small rhododendron plants are very simple:  keep them regularly watered at all times, and provide some protection their first winter.  With just a little care you will be very successful.