There are some plants in my garden that just demand to be viewed together. In my front garden bed is a Fire Flame Tree Peony that for years has bloomed at the same time as a perfectly color matched azalea. Together they light up their niche in the world for a week or two each year if I’m lucky.
These Fire Flame Peonies blooming in my May garden along with the azalea inspired my original painting.
Keep the rain away from the peonies and the heat away from the azalea & I’ve got a perfect vignette. I love the way the focal points shift around my garden all year when either color takes prominence or form, as it does in winter.
I think of my garden as a theater production where spotlights guide your eyes around the action on stage.
If you want to extend the season of the colorful joy of these planting combinations you should consider buying one of my pieces of Art. Visit my Art Store to see your options. You won’t be disappointed!
Fire Flame Peony – Available in the Mary Ahern Art Store
I have designed a rather informal garden with meandering paths using a variety of materials. At the end of, or just around the corner of each path, is some type of focal point, which draws you forward, in eager exploration. My garden is about moving through and around rather than sitting in one location and observing the whole.
The irregular bluestone pavers serve as the path to bring you from the front entrance, around the deck, and under the aging mountain laurels. The azaleas to the left are rather dense so you don’t see the deck but instead have the sense that you’re walking through a woodland. The path is narrow and the laurels create a ceiling of sorts until you emerge into the openness of the front garden.
Oak Tree focal point as you emerge from the mountain laurel path
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the ceilings in his houses to give the same effect of enclosure and expansion as you walked from room to room. Variation of space enhances the experience of the individual as they explore the design.
This giant oak serves to keep the garden and deck cool all summer and feed the squirrels all winter with it’s abundance of acorns. In the fall you need to sit on the deck with an umbrella over your head since the acorns come down with such determination.
In October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy felled 4 large Oak trees in my woodland garden. We were lucky that was the only damage we suffered in that severe storm other than loss of electricity. Instantly my garden went from full shade to sunshine a dappled shade. What a transformation for it and for me.
Oak tree lost in battle with Hurricane Sandy
After a period of mourning, I started rethinking, planning and studying what to do with this newfound daylight.
Oak tree stump with new birch tree
One of the mighty Oak trees was left with an interesting sculptural remnant which I originally planned to keep in remembrance of what had been. As usual, I changed my mind as I started designing and replanting. I change my mind all the time as I work in my garden.
I decided to plant a Heritage River Birch, Betula nigra “Heritage” in memory of my Uncle Teddy who introduced me to gardening. As a child visiting him in Schenectady from my treeless home in Brooklyn, he one day found me peeling the bark from one of his many white birch trees. When he asked me to stop as I was pulling the “skin” from the tree and hurting it, I looked around and realized that the entire garden was alive. I was transformed!
So this tree is for him, Theodorus Hendrik Gerrits, 1914 – 1991. Thank you!
Recently I was asked about replanting trees after the destruction of Storm Sandy. I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue since my garden lost 4 large oaks which were living here before I moved into the shade they kindly provided me.
Following the storm, my arborist Ron Strauss of Tree Believers, (631-864-5514) sent his newsletter , “The Root of the Matter”, with recommendations of what to and what not to replant. Here is what he said:
We recommend that you do not re-plant using the following species of trees (all commonly planted in LI landscapes) that did not endure the storms well.
Emerald Green Arborvitae
Norway or Crimson King Maple
Now to the question of planting recommendations his list included:
Green Giant Arborvitae
For our smaller gardens, trees that I recommend and have or will be planting are:
Dogwood ‘Stellar Pink’ (this is one of the disease resistant Rutgers hybrids) 15-30’ ht & spread. Pink flowers in early summer.
Stewartia pseudocamellia var. koreana. Quite slow growing 30’ht, 20’ spread. Decorative bark. White flowers in early summer. Single or multi-trunk.
For the past 25 years I’ve cultivated my woodland gardens. For the first decade I cleared the tangled woods, studied the indigenous plants, planned paths and materials. I worked on creating a natural looking shade garden focusing on the large oak trees and Kalmia that inhabited this spot of land before I showed up.
A lot of thinking and sweat went into this garden. I selected what shrub trees, like the untold numbers of small cherries, that needed to be removed. Purged, or shall I say, paid someone to purge the thick growths of poison ivy. Fought and pulled, yanked and grunted bales and bales of ivy from the trees and ground in a continuing war for dominance.
When the bones were clear I began to plant. The lists of shade tolerant shrubs and perennials read like a who’s who of my garden. Mistakes were made. Shade is not shade. Lessons learned. Successes were savored. Learning that gardening in shade reduces the need for weeding, plus you perspire less. Perfect!
Oak tree lost in battle with Hurricane Sandy
But Sandy decided she knew better and redesigned my garden. She blew in and knocked down three large oak trees and a beech thereby instantly transforming my beloved woodland shade garden into a sun-splashed mecca. Thousands of weeds instantly rejoiced by dancing in the new sunshine, prancing in the beds and mulched walkways. Ivy rebounded with a vengeance of superiority, eyeing triumph. Scores of broken and battered kalmia, enkianthus, leucothoe, rhodi’s, azaleas, viburnum, hammemelis, and andromeda wept.
And now?? Lessons begin again.
Looking for low-maintenance in the sunshine? Remembering our club trip to the Highline designed by Piet Oudorf, my Dutch hero, I’m creating new plant lists with sunshine in mind to cover the time for my new gingko to grow and spread. Shade my grandson will perhaps enjoy in case I miss it.
Amsonia, salvia, achillea, aster, coreopsis, Echinacea, eremurus, liriope, persicaria, rudbeckia, sedum, helianthus, and grasses, yes many textures and heights of grasses. I’m excited now that my period of mourning has passed. Excited by all the new possibilities in the sunshine.
Deadheading the spent flowers on a rhododendron tends to focus the energy of the plant towards new flower production and general plant health. It also improves the sight of the plant when not in bloom.
To deadhead, use your fingers and gently rock the base of the spent flower truss back and forth until it separates from the plant. That’s it. Now you can either toss the spent bloom under the shrub for mulch or discard on the compost heap. Your fingers might get a bit sticky from the residue but that’s part of the fun of gardening.
I tend to deadhead my rhodi’s in the evening after I’ve worked all day in the garden and I’m strolling around to admire my work. I usually stop when it gets dark and that’s how I know it’s dinner time.
After the blooms are spent it is beneficial to deadhead your rhododendron
Notched leaves on your rhododendrons are caused by a variety of species of weevils. The adult forms of the weevil tend to feed at night during the springtime when you’re resting after a hard day in the garden. The damage will not kill your plant, just cause unsightly notching on the leaves. Of course, the leaves being evergreen will be around awhile to annoy you.
These notches on the Rhododendron leaf was caused by a weevil
• Hand pluck the critters.
One method of control is to go out to your garden in the evening with your flashlight and pluck the weevils from underneath the rhodi leaves and toss them into a bucket of water. This never appealed to me.
• Spray with systemic insecticide.
Another, more toxic method is to spray with a systemic insecticide, like Orthene. Make sure to follow the instructions on the label. Soak the leaves, both top and bottom as well as the soil underneath to get the best control.
• Accept imperfection.
The third method is to allow for a measure of acceptance of the notches and let nature take its course. Your neighbors will either respect your concern for the environment or talk about your lack of concern for aesthetics.
Generally speaking, cultural requirements are less “demanding” for lepidote (small-leaf) rhododendron and azaleas, both evergreen and deciduous. They tolerate, and to some extent require, more sun than elepidotes, and azaleas will also tolerate less well-drained soil. In all other respects, the general guidelines outlined above apply to all plants in this family.
Rhododendrons prefer a site that provides afternoon shade, some protection from wind, good drainage and air circulation. Sloping terrain is also a decided advantage.
Well-drained soil is a must. Use raised beds to plant on top of poorly drained soils. Ideally, soil should be acid (ph 4.5 – 6.0) and high in organic matter. Pine bark, coarse sphagnum peat moss, composted wood chips and other such materials can be worked into the soil to improve organic matter content and soil drainage. Incorporate a few handfuls of super phosphate (0-20-0) in the mix to stimulate root growth.
Container plant root balls must be sufficiently disturbed so that roots extend out from the ball. The planting hole should be wide but shallow. Loosen and amend soil only 8 – 10 ” deep so that the root ball sits on solid ground to prevent sinking. Plant only as deep as the top of the root ball with no soil on top of the ball. Do not pack soil tightly around the plant, as tender roots will be destroyed. Mulch 3″ deep and water thoroughly.
Rhododendron Planting Diagram
Mulch with 3″ of pine bark, pine needles, oak leaves, composted wood chips or other loose airy material. Do not use maple leaves, grass clippings or other materials that pack down.
Loading mulch for placing under shrubs
If plants hold good green color and grow well, no fertilizer is needed. Rhododendrons are not heavy “feeders”. A soil test can determine what elements are deficient if plants do not perform well. When necessary, apply a fertilizer formulated for acid loving plants in late winter or early spring. Don’t fertilize after June 1st.
Proper watering is an important after care practice, especially for the first several years as plants become established. Keep the soil moist but not wet. Water deeply, (apply 1″) in the absence of equivalent rainfall. Don’t water again until the soil starts to dry out. Afternoon wilting of new growth is normal. If leaves become turgid a few hours after sundown, no additional water is needed. Water requirements diminish in late summer and early fall as new growth hardens up for winter. Plants should, however, be watered going into winter following a dry fall.
This is part of an outline of a ten minute talk I gave to the Centerport Garden Club on November 9, 2010
HOW ARE RHODODENDRONS CLASSIFIED?
Rhododendrons are classified into two major groups, lepidote and elepidote?
Elepidotes are large leaved rhododendrons. They are the type of shrub that most individuals would associate as being a rhododendron. They do not have scales located on the underside of the leaves. Plants tend to be very large in their maturity.
Elipidote Rhododendrons have big leaves
Lepidote rhododendrons have smaller leaves and are usually low growing or dwarfs. They usually bloom earlier in the spring than the larger leaved elepidotes.
Lepidote Rhododendrons have small leaves
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AZALEAS AND RHODODENDRONS?
Rhododendrons have 10 stamens, 2 per lobe
All azaleas are rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas.
True rhododendrons have 10 or more stamens which is 2 per lobe. Azaleas usually have 5 stamens or 1 per lobe. Azaleas have 5 lobes in a flower
Azaleas tend to have appressed hairs which are hair parallel to the surface of the leaf. This is particularly true along the midrib on the underside of the leaf. It is easily seen in “evergreen” azaleas.
True rhododendrons instead of hair are often scaly or have small dots on the under side of the leaf.
Azalea leaves are never dotted with scales and are frequently pubescent.
Many azaleas are deciduous.
True rhodi’s are usually evergreen with the exceptions of R. mucronulatum and R. dauricum.
Azaleas have tubular funnel or funnel shaped flowers. Rhodi flowers tend to be bell-shaped.
This is an outline of a ten minute talk I gave to the Centerport Garden Club on November 9, 2010
Rhododendrons and azaleas belong to the genus Rhododendron of the heath family (Ericaceae).
The heath family includes the heaths and heathers, blueberries, mountain laurels and several other ornamental plant groups. Most members of this family require acid soil and good drainage.
This is a selection of the Rhododendrons submitted to the judging of the Spring Flower Show at the NY Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society at Planting Fields Arboretum
Where are Rhododendron’s from?
Some are native to the US.
The British became the first explorers to seek out new additions.
Collecting has brought plants, seeds & cuttings from Japan, China & the Himalayas.
New species are still being collected in central China.
In the 1800’s they were so expensive & were considered a rich person’s plant. They appeared on estates and in arboretums.
Most of the Rhodi’s we know today are hybrids created from the parents of the plants collected by these plant explorers.
Azaleas blooming in May in my garden in Northport NY
Large leaf evergreen Rhodi’s: Great for screening and as a backdrop behind the flower garden, Catawbiense, English Roseum, Scintillation, Maximum
Small leaf evergreen Rhodi’s: some sport beautiful mahogany leaves during the winter months, Aglo, Dora Amateus, Mary Fleming, the PJM’s
Yakushimanum hybrids: usually 3’wx3’h with woolly indumentum on dark green leaves. Have wonderful winter interest, Crete, Fantastica, Ken Janek, Percy Wiseman, Prince & Princess
Species Rhododendrons, can present well in a mixed flower, shrub border. There is a species rhododendron garden in DC.
Azaleas-Evergreen: Michael Dirr begins his Azalea Cultivar & Hybrid Group section with:
“In some respects, it is paralyzingly frightening to attempt to present the cultivars of azaleas.”
There are so many but you can begin to study them realizing that some are named for their hybridizers: i.e. Girard Hybrids, Glen Dale Hybrids, Polly Hill’s North Tisbury Hybrids. Others by their location: i.e. Linwood Hybrids, Karume Hybrids of Japan.