This year is going to be a great year for the early flowers! In Sussex the Camellias are spectacular, having had the benefit of no serious frosts for some weeks now. The forests and woods are also remarkable, with Wood Anemones, Crocus, Lesser Celandine, Cyclamen and Winter Aconite all blazing away before the trees come into leaf thus shading the floor in perpetual gloom.
The Azaleas and Rhododendrons are also just coming to the fore. I am told Bodnant Gardens is especially radiant this year and well worth a visit if you live near. But there other gardens with equal displays across the country.
If visiting inspires you to plan your own early flowering garden then make sure to try and copy what nature already does. Just looking at online catalogues will tell you that there are many to Rhododendrons to choose from, with many new hybrids being bred each year. Be advised, read the label well as some species can grow to 50ft high as well as across!
Once you have chosen it is best to think of how your plant grows naturally. Azaleas and for a start grow in shaded valleys high up in mountainous areas (5,000 to 10,000 feet) with a high annual rainfall. They also prefer a soil that is well mulched and high in leaf litter.
The plants are shallow rooted - almost epiphytes in fact -so they really don't do well in shallow or poor soil, therefore it is vital that they get adequate water and food. Of course it should never be forgotten that they are first and foremost ericaceous plants, so require an acid soil. According to the old books on Rhododendron care, the plants thrive best if put in a bed that is lower than the surrounding land. This means that any water will pool adequately to provide a similar environment to the wild lands of India and China, from where the originally came. (It also means you have the space to add a regular mulch of rotted leaf-litter.)
Another thing to consider is the surrounds. Rhododendrons live best in soils where they are not competing with larger, heavier plants that take all moisture, although the paradox here is they cannot tolerate the heat of the full summer sun. Basically a damp, shaded or semi-shaded spot surrounded and overhung by deciduous trees like birch or ash is ideal.
Pruning is pretty simple once the plant is established. Always do it just after flowering has finished. This gives them the time to create new growth over the summer to hold next year’s flower buds. They are pretty disease resistant, although there are a few new fungi to look out for. Just keep them fed and mulched and they should be happy.