Giving Branch Structure to Your First and Second Year Rhododendrons

Purchasing a smaller, younger Rhododendron has its advantages and comes with a few added responsibilities of the owner.  I would like to share with you some tips on creating a plant that will grow into a larger plant with added shape.

Most Rhododendrons will naturally grow to meet the minimal needs of the plant.  If left to grow out on their own, they tend to have fewer branches and usually favor a side that will have taller or wider branches.  When we have Rhododendrons in our groomed landscape, most owner want to have a shape that is more traditional and provides the most blooms for color.  If a shapely plant is desired, the owner of this plant needs to take a few steps in the first couple of years to ensure that the branching starts from the beginning.

We have been so pleased that many of our customers have selected first and second year plants.  For the most part, these sizes have not been available to the consumer because of the extra steps that need to take place to ensure a plant that meets the plant structure standards of most home gardeners.

Speaking in general for most rhododendrons, they will put on at least one new set of growth each year.  Most first year plants that we sell will arrive to you with at least two branches.  In order to achieve a shapely plant, you will want to encourage your plant to grow multiple sets of branches in the next growing season.  This is simply achieved by using a pair of scissors and pruning your plant about half way up the branch.  This pruning will encourage new branch growth below the cut.  There is a lot of variation in plants, but typically you should expect between 2 and 5 additional branches to form from this single cut.

In the second year of grow, we follow the same steps.  When a plant has started to develop larger branches during this second year, many times you can actually see the branch buds on them stems.  It is ideal to make you cut about ¼” above the bud to promote growth in that bud and in other buds on the same branch.  Ideal buds to trim above are buds that are pointing to the outside of the plant.

Timing is important when you are trimming branches.  New growth from your plants can take 6-8 weeks to “harden off” and make them less susceptible to freezing conditions.  If you are located in a place with longer growing periods, you may get two “flushes” of new growth in one season.  If you are happy with the shape and the number of branches that you plant has, trimming just as your plants are coming out of dormancy is ideal and may allow some of the new branching to produce flower buds.  Typically, flower buds set for the next year right after a plant blooms.  This fist “flush” of new growth when trimmed early can set flower buds.  If you are working on structure, you can trim growth on second year right out of dormancy plus possibly again when the stems are rigid or when you can see the stem buds. Make sure that you do not do any trimming with less than six to eight weeks before the first frost, or you may lose the new growth.

The first couple of years of growth are a great time to achieve balance in you plant.  If you are seeing one side of your plant that is heavier with branches than the other or if you are seeing branches that are much taller than others, removal of the branch or trimming the branch back to a stem bud that will bring it back to the shape of the plant is ideal to do in the first couple of years.

Purchasing First and Second year plants is really a lot of fun.  I am always amazed at how quickly the babies grow and become amazing looking plants.  There are volumes of literature written about the information above.  I encourage you to spend some time with a couple of books from the library or visit the web site of The American Rhododendron Society for great information.  Changes are, the questions that you might have, have been asked before and have been answered by people with great knowledge and experience.  As always, please feel free to email us at RhododendronsDirect.com.