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Pruning a large Rhododendron

Big Rhododendrons can be cutback

By: Sandy Feather 2008
Penn State Extension


Q. We have a jumbo-sized Rhododendron in front of our house that was planted 30 years ago. This Rhododendron has grown high enough to completely cover our picture window. Since this is a nice, healthy plant, we don't want to remove it. Can Rhododendrons be cutback severely to 4 feet tall without harming them?
  

 

A. Healthy rhododendrons are tolerant of the kind of severe pruning you are contemplating. Although you normally prune them when they finish blooming, severe pruning is best done in late March. You will sacrifice next year's flowers. Rhododendrons bloom on old wood, which means that they set flower buds for next year as soon as they finish blooming this year. If you prune after the buds are formed, you remove the following season's flowers.
  


Severe Pruning

The type of severe pruning you want to do is stressful to the plant, and is best done before they bloom. That way, the rhododendrons can put their energy to re-growth and recovery rather than flowering.
  

Rhododendron
Older Rhododendrons can be
cutback instead of removed

Be sure to use hand pruners and limb loppers rather than hedge shears to maintain the lovely natural shape of the plants. You will notice that rhododendrons grow in whirls of foliage separated by a length of stem. If you prune back to a lower whirl of leaves or a side branch growing off of a main stem, you maintain the attractive natural growth habit of the plant while substantially reducing the size.
  
There are buds at the base of the leaves that will grow into new stems. It is always best to leave outward-facing branches and buds while removing those that grow back into the plant. Directing the growth out permits good light penetration and air circulation in the middle of the plant, which is important to the overall health of your rhododendrons.
   

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