JARS v59n1 - Planting Instructions For the Northeast Region

Planting Instructions For the Northeast Region
James D. Fry
Northport, New York

Reprinted from the New York Chapter newsletter, March 1998

I've been trying to write "rhododendron planting instructions for beginners" to be given out at local nurseries, plant sales, etc. Although I've been a member of the ARS for only two years [at time of writing], I have been growing rhodies and azaleas for well over twenty years. Needless to say, I've asked a number of people for their recommendations on successfully planting potted rhodies and I've gotten back different opinions on the subject: amend the soil, don't amend the soil, use sand, don't use sand, use peat moss, don't use peat moss, mulch with shredded pine bark, don't use any mulch, big holes, small holes, shallow holes, deep holes, etc. etc. etc.
Dick Murcott was right when he said, "Those potted plants are murder!" However, potted plants are just like the mass produced automobile. If growers only grew field grown plants, most of us couldn't afford to buy them! Henry Ford made it possible for the common man to afford a car by mass-producing those cars. Potted rhododendrons and azaleas make it possible for us to buy a greater variety for very little money. It's up to us (the ARS) to educate the public on how to get those cheap, plastic lined plants to survive the extreme change of environment when we plant them.

This Is My Method
I'm never organized enough to know that I'm going to put a particular plant in a particular place before I've even purchased the plant. I have my shopping list ready for the plant sale(s), but I also cruise the local nurseries looking for bargains. Sound familiar? And you thought you were the only one!
I almost never buy a rhodie and immediately plant it in the ground. What I do within several days of purchasing the plant is repot it in a much larger pot. The soil I use is the indigenous soil in my yard mixed with peat moss at about a 4:1 ratio. I'm lucky in that the soil is not loaded with clay and it has plenty of organic matter from the oak trees on the property, but it's easy enough to make a "rhodie-friendly" soil.
The rhodie is pulled from the pot and the roots are spread out. Sometimes those bargain plants are really root bound so I have to severely cut into the ball with a knife, but I try to be as gentle as possible. Most, if not all, of the stuff that the roots were growing in is dumped into and mixed with my soil mix. Waste not, want not!
The bottom of the larger pot is filled with semi-rotted oak leaves, composted wood chips, and sometimes Styrofoam chips (I always regret the cleanup later on though) to a depth of 2-4 inches. I've even used old golf balls in the bottom of the pot to get at least 2 inches of space for the water in the pot to drain into before it drains out of the holes at the bottom. It not only insures that you won't have a soupy mess at the bottom of the pot, but it provides a good volume of air underneath the root ball.
I then put in a minimum of 2 inches of the new soil and then the plant with spread roots. Soil is poured in, worked around the roots, and finally brought up to the top of the root ball. I leave 1-2 inches of plastic pot over the top of the root ball. The soil is gently pushed down and the plant is checked for stability. If the plant tends to fall over, I tie string guy wires from the top of the pot to the trunk of the plant. The pot is then topped off with mulch that can be made from oak leaves, pink bark nuggets, pine needles, or fully composted wood chips.
If it's spring, I say goodbye to all of the flower buds except one and that is deadheaded soon after blooming. If it's fall, I cut them all off.
After the initial watering where I slowly pour in a least 1 gallon of water, I check to see that the water is draining through to the bottom of the pot. As soon as it passes this test the pot is stuck in the ground so the top of the pot is 2 inches above the surrounding soil in an area that is somewhat protected from the sun and wind and is well drained.
I have a "staging area" for plants, but you can put the pot right where the plant will ultimately go. If conditions aren't good at that site, it's a lot easier pulling up a pot with the plant inside it than re-disturbing the poor plant without a pot. You just have to remember to remove the pot several years later.
The plant is checked twice per week for its general condition and for moisture content of the root ball. This is real easy. I just stick my finger down through the mulch and into the soil. If it's damp I leave it alone. If it's soupy I find out why. If it's dry I water it. If Mother Nature is giving us less than 1 inch of rain per week, I'm extra diligent. The fact that it is now in the ground means the soil temperature won't get too hot in the summer or be subjected to the freezing and thawing that would occur during the winter if it was left on top of the ground.
After its first winter, if I haven't transplanted it, I water and care for it just like all the other established plants. In my experience, the plant can be left this way for two to four years without serious damage. When it is transplanted it has already become acclimated to its new soil, climate, fertilizer and water routines. You won't have to "butterfly" or spread the roots again because they are already growing in the same soil that is in your planting bed.
This method has worked consitently for me.