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How and When to Prune an Overgrown Rhododendron Plant

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April 4,1998
"Hi again. It's me, Mandy.
My neighbor has two 10 foot tall Rhodies ready to bloom.
We live in Southeastern PA to give you an idea of our climate.
The Rhododendrons are about to bloom (in another three or four weeks) and I'd like your advice on how far back I can cut them.
Some people have said, "right to the ground." This scares me because they are presently so handsome.
Others go for the "cut them back at the "Vs" until you've gotten a managable size. But there's that obvious blank (bald) area in the middle when you do that.
I'd like to know if there's another way. Kinda want my cake and eat it too, if you see my dilema.
The lady who owns it is elderly and would appreciate an educated guess rather than a wing and a prayer.
Can you help? Obviously it's difficult since you can't see it and I can't send it to you (not having that capability) but maybe you might direct me to some good books with details and pictures that might help. "

Pruning Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons can be pruned as much or as little as you like.
The how to prune and when to prune are more important than how much to prune, when it comes to Rhododendron Plants.
Most pruning of large flowered Rhodys should be done in the early spring at blooming time.
You will lose some of the flower buds, but the plant will put its energy into producing the new growth buds,
which will in turn provide the food and energy for the following years flower show.
Personally, I prune to attain the shape of the plant I want.
If it is necessary to cut the plant way back, it is best to do it in two stages.
Cut half of the branches, halfway back, and then the following spring, you can cut the other half.
By pruning your Rhododendron using this method, you will force new growth from the cut branches, utilizing energy from the established branches.
(I hope that makes sense!)
Willy the Garden Gnome
This will also cause far less shock to the plant.
That is only a general rule to follow, you CAN cut more than half of the plant back when it's necessary.
The Rhody in the photograph below was no more than a leafless stump when I brought it home.
Now that magnificent Pacific Rhododendron is fourteen feet tall!

Rhododendron Pruning Tips

  • With Rhododendron plants, the most important pruning you can do is dead-heading the old buds before they go to seed
  • Always remove dead wood promptly, regardless of the time of year
  • Prune as early in spring as possible, to give the cuts the best chance to heal
  • Always use sharp, clean tools, and make smooth cuts
  • Always cut back to a growing point, preferably an outward growing bud or branch
  • Removing branches from the middle of the plant will allow more air flow and light into the center of the plant
  • Always make your pruning cuts at a slight angle so that moisture will readily run off
  • If the cut branch is larger than an inch, paint the cut with a pruning seal or grafting wax

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Pacific Rhododendron
Rhododendron macrophyllum
A Pacific Rhododendron with Pink Flowers, Rhododendron macrophyllum

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