Marion Owen

Meet Festivo, a beautiful, semi-dwarf rhododendron that thrives in Kodiak’s maritime climate. (Marion Owen photo)

By Marion Owen

If you’re a clematis or rhododendron, you’re showing your gratitude for a mild spring with showy, colorful blooms.

I’d probably do the same thing if I were a flower.

Clematis is a flower of the climbing kind. I purchased a plant several years ago from a nursery in Homer. It has been a test of patience though, as it takes several years for a clematis to mature and begin flowering profusely.

“It’ll look dead for a while,” my brother in Spokane warmed me after the first year of looking at a moonscape-type bush. “But don’t prune it. Those brown sticks will sprout lots of green shoots.”

Sure enough, delicate, fairy leaves and tendrils emerged and began filling the vertical trellis. Now, two years later, the plant has stretched across a third of the horizontal roof, dangling a profusion of periwinkle flowers to tickle the heads of tall visitors.

The clematis is known as the Queen of Climbers, sometimes reaching lengths of 20 feet. Flowers range from white to wine red, lavender to deep purple. And there are a few yellow ones. Blooms of some cultivars can measure six inches across, but the plants that perform best in our region are the smaller blossom varieties.

They prefer a sunny spot, moist, well-drained soil of a slightly sweet (higher) pH. Be gentle when transplanting. Not to put fear in your hearts, but like cucumbers, clematis don’t like rough handling of their roots. I’ve heard that if you can get your clematis through its first year, chances are good that it will continue to thrive. Lots of compost helps, of course.

2014: THE YEAR OF THE RHODIE: Our mild winter and spring has produced stunning rhododendrons blooms, in spite of the lack of rain. Just look for the large, beehive hairdo flower trusses of pink, white, lavender, yellow or red. Most of the rhodies you see blooming right now are spring-blooming varieties in the Lower 48. In other words, what blooms in April in Seattle, translates to May, June and July for us (depending on the weather).

And while we tend to treat rhododendrons as a self-sustaining perennial shrub, their beautiful flowers will look stunning, year after year, if you give them extra care during the summer.

When I say ‘extra care’ I’m talking about fertilizing and de-budding. April and May is the best time to fertilize rhododendrons. There are a few things you need to understand before racing outside to the garden. Rhododendrons develop a complex and large root system made up of thousands of tiny, shallow running feeder roots. These roots are very efficient in extracting life-sustaining nutrients from their immediate [soil] neighborhood. And in our harsh conditions, you can bet the root systems are much larger in order to extract every micro-ounce of nourishment from their surroundings.

In the coastal forests of Washington and Oregon, rhododendrons thrive in the understory of cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock trees. In the domestic garden though, we’re the caregivers. So to fertilize rhododendrons, they first need to be growing in the correct kind of soil. In the forest, this medium is well drained, aerated, high in organic matter, and moderately to slightly acidic (low pH). To create similar conditions in your garden, add a combination of shredded bark, composted leaves and spruce needles, decayed wood, well rotted sawdust, compost, peat moss, seaweed and some (not a lot) of local topsoil. Organic matter is critical to provide an ideal growing medium for your rhododendrons. It also protects plants with an extra blanket during deep-freeze winters.

That said, low pH (acid) soil is not as critical when growing plants in an organic medium using primarily organic fertilizers. One good quality mix for rhododendrons contains leaves, evergreen needles, alfalfa and seaweed, and fish bone meal.

A little word of caution: More is not better. Rhododendron roots are easily damaged through well-intended feeding that results in over-fertilization with chemical fertilizers such as Miracle Gro. That’s why you are better off to stick with the slow-release organic materials that feed the plant over a longer period and improve our dense soils at the same time. A little fertilizer goes a long way, especially with small and young plants.

Apply a 2-inch layer of the mix under the shrub, spreading it out to the dripline (the area under the outermost branches). Keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk. The mulch helps retain moisture and control weeds. Don’t dig or till the mulch into the surface soil, just top dress with it.

Deadheading rhododendrons: Necessary or no?

Deadheading means to remove the spent blossoms, mostly done to improve the plant’s appearance. Is it necessary? No, but if your rhododendron hasn't been performing well over the past few years. In that case, improve the soil take some time to deadhead the plant because it will encourage more branching that should result in more flowers.

The best time to deadhead (and prune) rhododendrons is within three weeks after they finish blooming, when the old trusses are still pliable enough to snap off without damaging the growth buds. Leaving them on the plant won't interfere with flowering, and your rhodie will probably put out about the same amount of flowers the next spring anyway.

By the way, it’s not too late to transplant a rhododendron or clematis in your garden. You’ll fall in love with the rhodies’ trusses and the clematis’ wealth of tangled blooms.

COMING SOON: Garden Club’s annual plant sale

Mark your calendars for Saturday, June 7. Doors open at 10 AM at the Baranof Park ice rink for this popular plant sale, which is a fundraiser for the Kodiak Garden Club. Funds are used to support gardening efforts, including school gardens, around the community. If you have plants to donate, please arrive around 9 AM. Call Patty Holmes (486-3074) or Kate Loewen (486-3952) for more information.

Would you like to connect with local gardeners? Visit the Kodiak Growers or the Sustainable Kodiak Facebook page. Archived copies of Marion’s columns are posted at Contact Marion at

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