QBARS - v24n1 Rhododendrons in the Landscape

Rhododendrons in the Landscape
Doan R. Ogden, Landscape Architect
Asheville, N.C.

Each day, I am sure, we are all very grateful for our many blessings; gardeners and naturalists have an extra gift, it is almost as if a fairy godmother touched us with a wand and said "They shall love the earth and all things that grow, creep, walk, fly and swim upon it. Their senses will delight in the fragrance of the flower, the sound of water and wind, the touch of the warm soil, the taste of its fruits and above all, the sight of its natural wonders."

An hour in the garden in the morning, or at twilight, is an hour in church, the birdsong is its choir and the pure beauty of the first daffodil is a silent prayer. To the landscape architect and hobby gardener, the rhododendron family is only a part of a huge complex of plants, that are used with many other elements, as paints to create a four dimensional picture for man's enjoyment.

Of the many hundreds of plant fami­lies, I suppose none is more important in the landscape than rhododendrons. Most are evergreen and come in all primary and pastel colors. They are long lived, stay in scale, adapt to diverse surroundings, except alkaline or wind swept locations, and offer a long season of bloom from R. mucronulatum to R. prunifolium . Even though bloom is vitally important in the landscape, the landscape architect stresses shape, form and texture, even more-because the garden structure is there 365 days of the year. We tend to divide them into three main groups - rhododendrons, evergreen azaleas and deciduous azaleas. Each group has different characteristics of texture, form, flowering habit and seasonal interest. Hardly a landscape plan can be drawn without the use of at least some of them, and I am no exception.

Now how do we use them - to paraphrase Elizabeth Browning - let me count the ways. The other day I bought a few hybrid rhododendrons - couldn't resist - and on the way home, I wondered where I would plant them. This same question of how to use some additional paints in the landscape picture has happened many times to everyone here, and that is the theme of our talk this evening.

Any plant or planting, to be most effective, should fulfill a function or an association. This is the difference between a garden and a nursery. Not that a plant alone is not beautiful as an entity by itself, but in the landscape picture, it would violate so many rules of good design that the plant, except as a specimen, would become meaningless. We must not forget that a plant used with others is also just as pretty close up as an individual by itself.

I have in mind about one dozen ways that I have used rhododendrons and azaleas in landscape design:

  1. In the public or front yard: Rhododendron texture is very striking against almost all building materials, whether in bloom or not. They do get thin and chilly looking in zero weather however. Also I would be careful of clashing hues with brick. Under certain conditions you can use beds of azaleas under thin high trees around the perimeter of the front yard to give a frame for the house. A few can pick up the sequence as part of the foundation planting. If this type of planting is the theme along your street I would go along, if the neighbors have open park like lawns without side or corner plantings, I would not upset the harmony of the street. If the house faces south or west, I would use some tree shade as part of the design.
  2. As a natural informal border and privacy screen for the rear garden they are excellent. Sometimes heavy shade at the rear of the lot prevents a plant­ing of most shrubs; Rhododendron maximum will take heavy shade. In more open high semi-shade, the hybrids are at their very best: generally the bold foliage is used in masses in the rear with the finer foliage of azaleas dressing down in front. Also I like to use the more brilliant colors in the open areas and the whites and gentle colors in more shade. Also use bright colors near the house receding to the more pastel colors in the rear gives more depths. Some designers like to reverse this color scheme.
  3. As an alley of specimen plants along a walk, which may be formal or informal; this would mean the use of other plants as a border and between the specimens as a ground cover, for interest at other times of the year.
  4. As a bank cover to prevent erosions, and cover an unsightly clay bank; with beauty in this day when everyone wants low maintenance, the use of azaleas on hard to maintain banks and slopes, properly planted and mulched, involves little care.
  5. Azaleas are unsurpassed by a pond's edge or along a brook in naturalistic groupings.
  6. Sometimes among deciduous hardwoods small groups of evergreen azaleas tend to look spotty and out of character during the winter months. Here groups of our deciduous azaleas are more appropriate. Actually our native azaleas like the edge of a forest better, as they will stay more compact and bloom more freely in part sunshine.
  7. Rhododendrons and azaleas have a special affinity for rock. If you have rock outcroppings (not limestone) or a man-made rockery with large rock, some of the dwarf alpine types can be used as specimens against a boulder with an almost oriental simplicity that has everyone hauling out their cameras when they are in bloom.
  8. Some of the deciduous azaleas such as R. roseum, viscosum, arborescens and atlanticum are very fragrant - use them in moderation near a walk, seat, patio or arbor. There is nothing that creates more charm in a garden than fragrance.
  9. I have seen azaleas used as an architectural hedge - I do not advise it for two reasons: There are other plants that do this job better and I hate to degrade azaleas by shearing.
  10. Suppose you had a fine woods at the back of your property that you wished to keep intact. No matter what you do, short of destroying the trees, this forest will dominate the view, and as you look at the straight boles of oak, maple and pine it is quite satisfying as it is. But a lawn needs a border and the forest, just like your home needs a foundation planting. Usually the forest edge dressed down with rhododendrons and azaleas in informal masses complements the view. The forest is still the dominant theme but is accented for more interest. Incidentally it's a fact that most plants, other than trees, are weak by themselves: even groups of shrubs or flowers are, unless they are supplementing a more powerful interest such as a building, wall, walk, forest, mountain or lake view.
  11. A different woods picture can be developed by thinning the trees for high light shade, and massing rhododendrons and azaleas in carefully designed drifts as a carpet undergrowth. This is particularly effective when the plantings slope up from the house. This allows a deeper view into the woods and still would feature the straight boles of the trees. You would need to use many, many plants to stay in scale with the woodland. A spotty planting would be worse than nothing.
  12. We do not generally consider azaleas or rhododendrons for fall color; the only exception that I know of is azalea R. vaseyi which is very colorful in the fall.
  13. I should like to see cities and towns pick hybrid rhododendrons as a floral scheme, the same way as Rochester, N.Y. picked lilacs and Birmingham, Mich. picked flowering crabs, and many towns have picked crape myrtles, azaleas and dogwoods.
  14. Around an overgrown shrub lawn as a border.

I would like to mention, before closing, a trick of the trade when you are studying your own place for improvements: and that is memorizing some key words: the first is "susbish" and that means "scale: unity: simplicity: balance: interest: sequence and harmony".

  1. Does a lone bush look funny in association with a large lawn and big trees? Remove it if it is out of scale and clutters up the picture. Sometimes a whole bed of azaleas can be insignificant in the center of a large park lawn. The eye wanders right over it to take in the large picture and the bed becomes insignificant.
  2. Are the proposed planting locations unified with the home, patio, walks, pool, a garden design, a driveway. Most of us have seen fine homes literally degraded by being used as a backstop for a collection of non-related nursery stock.
  3. Does the area really need any more plants or are we over dressing the simplicity of the picture? If the present plantings are sufficient to the needs, any additional plants hurt instead of help the picture. If in doubt always err on the side of simplicity.
  4. Is the picture we are creating lopsided - out of balance - I don't mean necessarily formal balance, but is all the interest and attention pulled to one side of the yard and the other is open through to the neighbors garages, etc. Most of us have informal gardens, and asymmetrical balance is harder to obtain than formal balance.
  5. Does the view have no special point of interest or has it too many points of interest. A satisfying picture has only one dominant theme. If you have two or more, the attention is split and you get a bewildered irritation. If there is no interest point, the garden effect is dull and uninteresting no mat­ter how pretty the plants. The whole garden is designed to lead the eye to the point of interest.
  6. Sequence or repetition is little used but important. All nature is based on rhythms and your plantings should show swells of the same kind of color and textures in a rhythmic sequence so that the eye does not jump in little unrelated jerks around the yard.
  7. Harmony of color, texture, form is very noticeable when it is not in evidence. This does not mean that the judicious use of accents are not also vital.

If we can train ourselves to think in terms of these word tools, and if we remember that any plant or planting must be used to fulfill a particular function or supplement the function of another form of landscape development: then the using of our cherished rhododendrons and azaleas or any other plant will not only be individually attractive, but will be an integral part of the entire beautiful landscape.