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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in Azaleas (4)


Rhododendron "Rosy Lights" Formerly Known as an Azalea

I am a plant growing in Allan’s garden and I am not certain of my identity. My given name is Rosy Lights but my family name is puzzling. I used to belong to the Azalea family until botanists tested my DNA. From the results, they concluded that I am a Rhododendron. Why did they have to go and do that? Did they not realize how long it took me to learn how to spell azalea?

I find it hard to believe that I am actually a rhodo because I am not a broad-leafed evergreen. My foliage, which is smaller than theirs is, turns brown and drops off in autumn. Rhododendrons maintain their green foliage all winter. Allan likes them better than he likes me because, throughout the year, their leaves help to camouflage the foundation of his house. In addition, they are more substantial looking, their form is more elegant, and they make a more effective glossy green background for perennials than my foliage does.

In winter, I look barren compared to a rhododendron. Even in spring, there are noticeable empty spaces among my branches because I am gangly, my small sized foliage doesn’t spread far enough, and my shape is not as symmetrical as a rhodo is. That’s why I am placed away from the foundation, among the other seasonal plants. The foundation is reserved for those shapelier plants that are also reliable camouflagers. In small urban gardens, I am used as an ornamental shrub among the perennials. I don’t mind and remain proud because I bring breathtaking beauty to the garden.

In this photo shoot, I am seen blooming in the flowerbed in the second week of May, in Zone 4 and, except for spring flowering bulbs and Pulmonaria, nothing else is flowering now to give the homeowner pleasure. I have the garden to myself and there, I put on an eye-catching display.

Did you notice how photogenic I am? Is it because my flowers are iridescent? Or, did nature outdo herself when she designed my flower head? Some people confuse me with an orchid. Thanks for the flattery, but I believe that I am far more interesting. In this garden, I am known as an attention grabber. That feels good. It makes Allan feels good too, just to look at me.


Beautiful Plants: Can There Ever Be Too Many?

Azalea gardens, from

When the renowned landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme died last December, one of his pet peeves was reported frequently in various tributes to his lifetime accomplishments. Oehme abhorred Azaleas. Not only did he find them ubiquitous, but he also found their green foliage boring after the shrub stopped blooming.

 I am not comfortable with his assessment.

Azalea closeup courtesy of

The first time I saw azaleas, I was overwhelmed with joy. I thought I had magically stepped into a Technicolor Walt Disney movie. It happened when I first visited Rockland County, New York at the height of the blooming season; I was euphoric. 

Once, azaleas were new to me. I had never seen them growing in my area - that is until recently, after they were bred to be winter-hardy. Some might say that if I had grown up in a temperate climate, where they grow abundantly, perhaps like Mr. Oehme, I too might tire of them.  

But I doubt that would ever happen. Those of us who are moved by colorful flowers will admire them where and when we can, no matter how short the time to enjoy them.

The family, including rhododendrons, is quite versatile. Its  many varieties have proven to be visually effective even when used as foundation plants. Flowering shrubs in this group create a win-win situation for the gardener. They provide lush clouds of vivid color in late spring, followed by a proscenium of green foliage that not only enhances later blooming perennials and also camouflages the homes’ foundations. I will never tire of using them.

Understandably, it is an aspect of human nature that ubiquitous plants will annoy some gardeners and turn a few of them into horticultural elitists. They observe the same plant used so often, and in so many locations, that they cannot  bear to look at it. The question remains: - why do the rest of us continue to plant them? Because they are reliable.

Wild eupatoreum,

Endless miles of native species of eupatorium, asclepias, and achillea that I observed as a child on summer holidays left me hating these native perennials. Later in life, I would deliberately avoid using them. Then, one day, I noticed new cultivars bred from these families, growing in a neighbor’s garden; I was impressed how attractive they appeared.

That inspired me to reconsider my attitude and I began to incorporate them into my work. When they were combined with other plants to create impressive combinations, they proved to be among the more dependable specimens in my flowerbeds. Now, they are the workhorses that help make my gardens beautiful.

Hemerocallis Stella d'Oro,

A similar case can be made for Hemerocallis Stella d’Oro, and Knock Out Roses. They are considered by some to be good-old-reliables; they grow anywhere, pump out endless color, and return season after season with little effort from the gardener.

Knock Out Rose,

That they have become ubiquitous should not make us cringe upon seeing them. They are effective wherever they are used. It is fortunate that, living in unpredictable and changing climates, we can count on them to awake and rebloom each season.

In deference to the late Mr. Oehme, I understand his reaction to the seas of azaleas he discovered when he first arrived in America from Europe. Perhaps it is because he took up residence in a temperate climate that he disliked them so. Wherever endless varieties of plants grow in abundance, one has the privilege of selecting and discarding them at will. After all, there are so many from which to choose that eliminating one or several from one’s repertoire is not a serious matter.

We northerners cannot behave so cavalierly in our gardens. We work with a restricted list of plants that withstand our cold climate and short growing season. Consequently, we are appreciative of all beautiful plants. No matter how often they occur in the gardens around us, we never tire of looking at them. We are just grateful.


My Lemon Lights Azalea Blooms Whenever it Pleases

It’s no secret, I love rhododendrons and azaleas. Watching them bloom in early summer gives me goose bumps. Part of the excitement lies in the fact that this family of vivid, lush-flowering plants did not grow in my area when I was young. I could only drool over them in garden magazines, catalogues, and photo journals such as Life Magazine and National Geographic.

The available varieties during the 1950’s and 60’s were too tender for my climate. Those that I can grow today ,because they are bred to withstand the winters of USDA Zone 4, are relatively new to my area. Nevertheless, I still bear the emotional scars of rhodo-depravation and when confronted with an assortment of blooming varieties at the nursery, I go berserk, not knowing which variety to select first.

Two additional factors that bring these plants close to heart are the luxurious, glossy texture of the rich, green foliage in summer and the intense, vivid, neon-like shades of the flowers that appear in late spring - early summer. No one in my growing zone is immune to the power of these colors. Yet, I have learned that in warmer climates, where this plant is ubiquitous, some gardeners have become indifferent to it. I suppose that is what happens when one experiences too much of a good thing.

Not having had any experience in growing rhodos and azaleas in my youth, I am learning about them as time goes on. Fortunately, my friends and family in Boston, who have been enjoying these plants for generations, have been able to give me the guidance I need. I have watched them vigorously trim their mature rhodos down to half their size with no apparent damage to the plants health, appearance, or its ability to re bloom. Now, that’s saying a lot about an ornamental shrub.

The root system of these plants grows horizontally and close to the surface of the earth, which makes transplanting easier than other ornamnetal shrubs. In addition, they take quit well to uprooting and re planting, even though the foliage may appear traumatized during the following season. They prefer an acid soil, which is not a problem in my area. However, when in doubt, I will spread a layer of cedar mulch around the shrubs, in autumn,  to supplement the acidity in the soil. Homeowners need to be cautious about placement in the garden because the roots of vigorously spreading mature cedar trees, that might grow nearby, will choke out the roots of rhodos and azaleas and cause them to die.

The one issue that is stymieing me is the fact that one variety of Azalea, Lemon Lights, has decided that one bloom season in my garden isn’t enough; every late September, it breaks out  with a few additional, new blooms that last until end October. The photo above is an attestation to this phenomenon. What the reader sees is the yellow flowers in their last few days of glory, on October 25th 2011, to be exact.

If I were as innovative as some of my colleagues, I might place a burlap sack over this plant in August, to trick it into thinking that it is wintertime. Perhaps then, it might save its blooming energy for the following season. However, I am not that ambitious. By end August, I am happy to leave my garden untouched until it is time to cut down the perennials. Instead, I will live in harmony with this renegade plant and enjoy its lemon-yellow flowers whenever they decide to appear.


A Vivid Pink Flowering Shrub

Planting the wrong color or the wrong shade of a color in the garden can sometimes be a serious matter. If gardeners or their clients have fixed ideas of how they want their gardens to look, choosing the right plant becomes critical. Here is an example of a challenge I sometimes face.

My clients all ask for vivid pink Rhododendrons or Azaleas, as long as they are not pink-lavender or orchid-pink in color. Before breeders introduced new cultivars that could survive here in zone 5a, only lavender-colored Azaleas and rhododendrons were available to us. Each spring, some neighborhoods would be covered in seas of lavender. Consequently, my clients, who wished to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, insisted that I plant any other color but that one.

Here is a photo of Rhododendron Olga Mezitt. Unlike the picture, the flower is lavender-free when grown in the garden. It glows like a giant luminous pink neon bulb. I try to plant it as often as I can in combination with Azalea Mandarin Lights [orange] and Azalea Lemon Lights [yellow]. These three non-lavender flowering shrubs combined on one lawn, create an explosion of multicolor that effortlessly erases the drab grey of early spring. It’s like the overture to a Broadway musical!

If you live in a climate that has been growing many richly colored rhododendrons ever since you can remember, try to imagine what it might be like to live where only one color rhododendron exists. Spring gardening used to be very boring here in zone 5a. I’ve made it my goal to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.