JARS v46n2 - Designing A Classic Rhododendron Garden

Designing A Classic Rhododendron Garden
Mark Konrad, M.D.
Sewickley, Pennsylvania

The making of a rhododendron garden can be an interesting, exciting and rewarding horticultural endeavor. The interesting part comes from the creative challenge. One must call on many accumulated concepts and weave them into a work of art which expresses your feelings about the environment and where you live.

The exciting part comes from creating beauty. It can be said that beauty is the essence of life and from which all things flow. Since we are affected so greatly by beauty, no wonder we are stimulated and inspired by the song "America the Beautiful." Each of us has the power to add a little bit to this stirring tribute and how nice it is to think we can alter the world in some small way through example and render a positive influence on people and their surroundings.

The rewarding aspect comes from making your property more valuable and, hopefully, at the same time not increasing your taxes. Does not everyone like to live in a beautiful home? Should we not want to surround ourselves with a beautiful outdoor living room?

So now let us travel from the sublime to the world of make believe. Thank your stars that the labor of love will remove the work obstacle.

Winding paths in Mark Konrad's garden
Winding paths give a flowing unity.
Photo by Mark Konrad

The Foundation

As in constructing a house, we must start with a design or concept which represents the foundation we must build on. Blessed are those who have large oaks and pines in the landscape. Without anything else in place they are themselves majestic.

It is mandatory to have winding paths which circulate in and around giving a flowing unity. The wider the paths the better. They can be further enhanced with the combination of uncluttered vistas. Rhododendron islands placed beneath high branched oaks are very effective. Pines make a wonderful backdrop and windbreak, as we all know.

Vistas in Mark Konrad's garden
Uncluttered vistas and rhododendron islands characterize
Dr. Konrad's Pennsylvania garden.
Photo by Mark Konrad

Rhododendrons like shade but ideally combined with the open sky. Pines can be of great help, especially the ones which are open and lacey. It is much better to have trees with tap roots. Surface rooted trees such as maples and hemlocks which compete with rhododendron both for light and moisture are to be avoided unless there are unusually wet places to be filled. There are many beautiful companion plants which can enhance any garden, but generally I prefer to stay with the Rhododendron genus. The wide variety of plant material makes it easy to have different combinations of color, texture and contrast. This further helps with the ease of maintenance, making the rhododendron garden one of the best in this regard. If one has the time and energy, other material certainly can be used for additional beautification.

Site Selection

Choosing the proper site is of prime importance. Having a level plot with sandy loam and good drainage will remove a great deal of work. A place with good microclimates can be a real plus, with low places to be avoided because of cold air pockets.

Any places that have natural shelter should be sought. Under natural conditions rhododendrons are often found thriving on sheltered northern slopes. A southern exposure without winter shade is to be avoided. Any natural sites with ponds, lakes or waterfalls would be a glamorous addition.


One of the more difficult things with a good garden design is the screening out of the utility areas as well as the plant nursery, if this must be incorporated. I personally find it aesthetically pleasing to sequester the young plants in the borders rendering them unobtrusive and thereby bypassing the conventional nursery appearance.

Another example of screening is the placement of a compost bin behind a cluster of rhododendron. Tomatoes which are grown in cages made of patio reinforcing wire can be placed in a sunny border and become an effective part of the summer landscape, blending in so well they are rarely recognized as vegetable garden plants by the visitors passing through. The small vegetable garden is also easily screened off with azaleas and rhododendrons.


The importance of maintenance cannot be stressed enough. Good planning eliminates much later work. All of the garden paths are designed to be maintained with the use of a small riding mower, with the grass clippings and shredded leaves being emptied into the borders for mulching.

Other benefits can accrue from a well designed plan. An increase in bird life can please the ear and help control the insect population. The vistas, as mentioned previously, are necessary for the overall garden effect and have a secondary function of making room for sporting activities, should there be a need or desire to incorporate these.

Beauty on the Back Side

Beauty is something that gives pleasure to the senses, so the dictionary states. Nature's grand design with flowering plants is to attract with the beauty of color and often with fragrance. Enhancing and supporting factors are the foliage, truss presentation and substance, translucency and design of the flower.

Each plant category has design characteristics which have evolved for its own environmental needs. Special traits are present, and with deciduous azaleas the hallmark appears to be the infusion of multiple colors in the flower.

The mass effect of color in plants is very pleasing. Part of this is obviously due to the back\side of the flower. This is demonstrated with the azalea 'Garden Delight' which has strong contrasting red and yellow color.

Deciduous azaleas deserve special recognition. Their debonair quality of mixing colors in the flower puts them in a class by themselves. They help balance the landscape and are dependably hardy, which can be a real asset where severe weather is a factor. The pastel range of color always commands attention in the border planting.

In summary, a special tribute has been paid to the beautiful deciduous azaleas. One can only dream of the new tints to be added to the multicolored flowers.

Deciduous azalea
Deciduous azalea
Photo by Mark Konrad

Sharing the Garden

Lastly, your garden can be a place for tours and education, especially for children. The possible value in this area is immeasurable. Your garden has the distinct advantage of being a beautiful garden for all seasons. How wonderful to be able to give a tour to anyone, at any time, within a moment's notice.

In summary, I have described some of the basic concepts that might be helpful in designing a rhododendron garden. Both the aesthetic as well as the practical aspects have been noted. The concepts outlined are applicable to the smallest as well as the largest gardens.

Mark Konrad, a frequent contributor to the Journal, has enjoyed developing his garden for 20 years. "By arranging and re-arranging one hopefully finds what is pleasing both to the eye and the spirit," he says.