Photo: Steve Bender

Peggy in Georgia has a problem. The rhododendron in front of her dining room window is taking over and blocking the view. It needs "a hard cut-back," she says. She wants to know if she can do that now. The answer: it depends. 

Ya see, rhododendrons, azaleas, lilacs, forsythia, quince, and many other spring-flowering shrubs set flower buds for next spring in midsummer. If you prune these plants now in late July, you'll cut off most of the flower buds and the shrub won't have time to make more before it goes dormant in fall. Result -- very few spring flowers.

But if you're OK with that, then go ahead and prune your rhododendron. Rather than taking hedge trimmers to the shrub, I'd recommend using hand pruners to shorten branches individually. Shorten each branch you've selected to be deflowered by cutting it off where it meets another branch in a V-shaped crotch. Basically, you're removing one side of the V.

Some people recommend cutting an old rhododendron to the ground and letting it grow back. I don't, because in a lot of cases, it won't grow back. And even if it does, it'll look ugly for years. Azaleas, particularly the vigorous Southern Indian hybrids like 'George Tabor' and 'Formosa,' respond much better to this.

FYI -- the rhododendron blooming above is 'Caroline' in my back yard. It's one of the easier rhododendrons to grow in the Lower South. Click here for a mail-order source.

Have A Water-Wise Yard? You don't have to live in parched California to see the need to save water. Water is expensive where I live (thanks to a corrupt county government) and I view watering as a life-suck activity anyway. Plus, since you don't know when the next drought is headed your way, it makes sense to choose plants that sip rather than guzzle. EPA's Water Sense Program is holding a photo contest to see who has the best water-wise garden. Click here for directions on how to enter. The deadline is August 27.

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