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18 May 2022

KILDARE GARDENING COLUMN: Tough, pretty and low maintenance rhododendrons

Gardening with Jo

KILDARE GARDENING COLUMN: Tough, pretty and low maintenance rhododendrons

During the last week, we here at Caragh Nurseries have been winding down after the Ideal Home Show. It was a great show but it was exhausting and we went straight into the following week and show breakdown. We are at full pelt with planting and production and so Ian, myself and Marie, our production manager, took a walk around the nursery to see where we are with stock for the coming year.

We are almost finished our field planting and that’s gone well and we have planted probably 50% more than in previous years. We have most of the nursery now in full time production so we are moving on to containerised production for the rest of the spring and into summer.

One of the things we have ready, as they are going to be flowering very soon, is rhododendrons. This week I thought I’d share with you some of the virtues of the rhodos.

Rhododendrons originate mainly from the Himalaya regions where over 600 different rhododendron species can be found. These range from those in the tender section at lower elevations of around 2,500 metres. Big leaved species with their massive leaves up to 75cm long, and grow in conifer forests around 3,000 metres. Further up the mountains as the tree line thins towards 3,500m, a wide range of interesting species and small leaved rhododendrons can be found sheltering amongst juniper and alpine meadows. Above 3,500m, dwarf rhododendrons grow in alpine conditions with snow cover for much of the year.

From these humble beginnings, plant breeders have developed more and more exotic hybrids over the past 100 years, with about 20,000 registered varieties. We have selected the best, and these tall and compact hybrids are perfect for any garden situation.

Rhododendrons were a favourite of Capability Brown who changed the landscape garden forever in the eighteenth century, designing country estates and mansions. He changed the way gardens looked by moving away from the French-styled geometric designs and concentrated more on echoing the natural landscape, making the most of meadows, lakes and often rerouting rivers so as to have them as natural backdrops for these stately homes. Brown was famous for designing the landscapes at Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth House and Longleat in the UK, along with many more.

In1762 James Fitzgerald, first duke of Leinster, wrote to Brown, then living on the outskirts of London, offering him £1,000 to cross the Irish Sea and create a picturesque garden at Carton, in Co Kildare. The invitation was declined.

If anyone has visited Headfort House in Kells (more recently it is a primary school) this has been landscaped in the 'Capability Brown way' with the river Blackwater as its backdrop. There you will see, all the way up the avenue, the most beautiful rhododendrons. Similarly, Carton House has a rhododendron walk and between April and June you can see the most beautiful display of colour.

Few landscape shrubs are as widely celebrated and anticipated in the spring garden as rhododendrons. Their showy displays of colour are a joy to the senses and have a way of taking centre stage in just about any landscape. If you are a golf fan you will probably have seen the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta. Masses of colourful, mature rhododendrons in the background clearly compete with the golfers for the viewer’s attention.

So which rhododendrons are the best to use. Well that is just a matter of personal taste and preference - but if I was to tell you my favourites then I can’t resist the Cunninghams White. Its pinky, mauve buds open to white flowers with a pale yellow eye in early May. With delicate small flowers, it is a very tough dense plant which is good for screening and difficult positions.

Another favourite is Percy Wiseman; a stunning showy peach pink and cream flowers, fading to creamy white in May. It has good foliage and lots of showy blooms. This is one of the most popular rhododendrons available and is certainly one of our favourites.

If you like large rhododendrons then Madame Masson will be a delightful one for you. This beautiful, larger growing rhododendron with white star-like flowers and a golden yellow blotch flowers from late May to early June. This is a very old hybrid that is extremely tough, reliable and striking. It is a dense, well-shaped plant with shiny dark foliage which is ideal for hedging and screening. It will reach a height of 150-180cm in 10 years. It is easy to grow with a good dense habitat and isn’t fussy about its position. So as you can see, the rhodo is not only striking but classic and easy to care for - what’s not to like?

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