Sunday, September 18, 2011

I'm in Trouble! (Rhododendron trouble...)

If there is sage advice I could give to new gardeners, never get too cocky about  your garden skills!  Just when I thought I had quite the 'garden mojo' going, my PJM Rhododendron has given me a reality check.  Here is a shot I took yesterday, before my always-generous husband offered to water my gardens:

Quick snap shot - 09/17/11
(PJM Rhododendron)
Now first of all, for those of you not familiar with this cultivar of Rhododendron, this is an 'evergreen' of sorts. It never sheds its leaves.  They turn a gorgeous shade of dark bronze during the winter months.  I may be panicking for nothing -- but these yellowing leaves have me clutching my heart!  As you can tell by the curled green leaves, it IS in need of water (they filled out happily after getting a thorough soaking later).

Can anyone with Azalea/'Rhodie' experience and expertise tell me if I've screwed up - with woeful neglect, unknowingly?  As a quick synopsis of historical care so far:  I purchased it April of last yeardeliriously happy when bloomed riotously this Spring,  it is planted in a protected (from North & West winter winds) corner by my 3-season room, I mulched it with a 2-3" layer of pine mulch (as is suggested), and watered it faithfully when there were dry spells.  

My dear Rhodie - in happier days
You may think I am making a mountain out of a mole hill, but you see, there is unhappy history here.  Illinois is probably not the most hospitable area for Azaleas & Rhododendrons (I envy NJ - where they grow like weeds), but 3 times I have tried to find/create a little corner of the world for this 'favorite'.  I was hoping "3rd time was a charm".

Another place - another Azalea:  that eventually met an untimely 'end'
(It was planted in that garden - not left in a pot)
I did a little research, and have learned that Azaleas/Rhododendrons have shallow roots - and often new plants with tight root balls require slow soaking to get established.  If there are any other suggestions or recommendations you have - I would greatly appreciate your wisdom!

Big thanks Garden Blog experts! ...


  1. I have confidence that someone with more knowledge than me can help you with your rhodie.
    I freaked out when our pine trees started getting yellow needles, after all they are evergreen but it turns out they do this every fall!

  2. The shallow roots also get hot in summer which when too hot, the plant can not take up sufficient water. Did you check for scale. They start out looking like that a bit when they have scale. We do not grow azalea in the nursery because they are not all that reliable here and often succumb to scale.

  3. Only other advice is to get a soil sample. Azaleas like acidic soil. If your pH is 7 or above, you will probably have trouble. The pine needles help after the planting, but if your soil is not acidic you will need to add amendments to lower the pH. Personally I'm not sure how anything survives your winters...brrrr.... but the same could be said about our summers -- HOT!

  4. I hate to even suggest that this might be the problem, but this particular variety is susceptible to the root fungus phytophthora and what you describe, well, it sounds pretty classic.

    I don't know if any common fungicides treat it with any degree of success but you could contact Weston Nurseries here in MA where it was developed and they might have an answer.

    Contact them at their Hokinton site as that is their original and main locaton.
    93 East Main Street
    Hopkinton, MA 01748
    (508) 435-3414

    What makes me think it's that is that rhodies affected with this look exactly the way you describe.... like they are wilting from lack of water and leaves turn brown and drop, even when they really are not lacking water. And watering them seems to resolve the problem in the moment but in actuality, it simply compounds the problem.

    Is the stem discolored down near the base of the plant? It may look brownish or reddish or if the disease is really advanced, it might even look white. It's one of the signs you often see with this. If you dig it up the roots will probably show some evidence of the disease - they may be overly brittle, discolored (reddish tinged brown), or dead and rotted.

    I had a problem with this fungus last year and lost several rhodies that I bought from a nursery in NC where this problem is apparently not uncommon in large nurseries. (They insisted the plants were healthy, but I had a someone look at detailed pix I took. They still claim the plants were healthy but they did reimburse me.)

    I did manage to save several of the plants that were not as severely dffected (about half of 20 plants were affected) but it was hit and miss and really depended on how affected they were at the time I realized they were infected and had a problem.

    What helped the ones I saved was to dig them up and replace the dirt around them with a much sandier, lighter, airier dirt. We mixed some of the mulch in to make it looser and airier and even more acidic... the rhodie can handle it, the fungus hopefully can't.

    One plant that was very sick was moved to a "clean location" with a well drained soil and I add some extra soilmoist to the hole.

    Soilmnoist absorbs water and makes it available when the plant needs it. It's great for droughts - it helped get us through last year's drought - but it also helps pull excess moisture away from the roots. The plant was able to recover and it bloomed this spring.

    I would start by digging it up, inspecting the roots, trimming away anything sick looking, and putting in fresh, healthy, airy dirt. And add some soilmoist. Don't plant too deep, and don't packj the dirt with a heavy tamp. I would also take cuttings from the healthiest shoots at the top and root with rooting powder so you have a healthy plant if you can't save the sick one.

    The other thing we did was spray them with trichoderma, which is a fungus that is a natural fungicide to other fungi. Can't hurt, might help. It has been very effective against black spot in our garden and there is some anecdotal info available that suggests that there is cross sensitivity against other fungi. We have found that to be the case as has someone else we suggested it to for a very different problem (fungus infection).

    Our rhodies are in a bed with roses and got sprayed as well. So far, we've sen a half dozen plants that were affected recover and thrive and no other healthy plants seem affected.

    If you want to give it a try, email me and I'll mail you some. It's pointless for you to buy any. It's about $100 box and a box is way too much for us, even with our huge garden, as it has a short shelf life. Sharing it means it won't go to waste. Trichoderma is totally safe for children, pets, fish, bees, and everything else living in the environment.

    You could also try some commercial fungicides but I would ask Weston Nurseries for ideas.

    Hope this helps. Cathy W.

  5. Hi Shyrlene. Personally I wouldn't panic until you have watered it well for a while, though I would check the soil Ph. Another mulch might be good too. Good luck!

  6. I can't help. My azaleas are always unhappy, but like you, I keep trying! Good luck with yours. I agree - there are so many variables, us gardeners can never have everything go perfectly!

  7. A thorough watering and an acidic fertilizer would probably help -- I wouldn't panic too quickly. :) I've had the same thing happen to my otherwise healthy rhodie; it seems to shed a certain amount of leaves every year, but always replaces them with new the following season. Good luck!

  8. Don't be too much sensitive in handling our plants. Water and fertilizer is enough.

  9. Rhodies abound here, and I don't do anything special. That said, our soil is acidic, and I know that alkaline soils are the nemesis of Rhododendrons. I top dress mine with compost once or twice a year, and may occasionally use an organic fertilizer specifically for Rhododendrons. They do like water, not soaking, but they do resent getting too dry. A little water, a top dress of compost to retain moisture, and maybe a shot of fertilizer. The leaves don't look scorched, so I suspect it's most likely a nutrient problem.

  10. Hmm, I have lots of Rhododendrons. I thought I was "good" with them because they were doing well, so I bought some more ... And a similar result. I just left them be, and after a good mulching and feeding they started to green up again with new growth. Sorry I can't be more helpful than that.

  11. I am so inspired by all the generous feedback you all have provided. Thank you so much! Seeing those leaves go yellow so fast really freaked me out. I've added another layer of pine mulch. (There are more leaves effected, but I'm trying not to be an alarmist.)

    I'll be testing the pH of the soil and making amendments if necessary. I also realized that the Rhododendron is about 3-4 feet away from a concrete slab poured Autumn of 2007; wonder if there would still be an alkaline impact after 4 seasons? Will also check for fungus.

    Thanks again for the tremendous feedback.

  12. Don't give up, for sure! Holly Tone and fall's cooler temps and rain may be enough to restore your PJM...

  13. It is funny how those kind of reality checks gets us when least expected like that. I had a couple recently too.
    My advice is to check for any diseases and try to put more acidic soil.
    I hope they recover well, just give it a bit more time, maybe they will surprise you.


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