Friday, April 27, 2012

That Last Blush of Spring

Rhododendrons 1, 2012

The way the weather’s been around here makes me a bit reluctant to refer to late April as spring. March was more like June. Mid-April was like what early March should have been. February was like April. The climate was clearly playing with us.
I will admit, though, that early or not the azaleas were glorious this year. Our yard is full of them, so many that it’s easy to take them for granted until that moment when they all come together to weave a carpet of pink and white and purple that spreads from the street in front of the house to the river in the back. For that brief period they put on such a show that you can’t help but feel like you’re not doing your part if you don’t do something colorful, too.
The thing about azaleas, though, is that their blooms are short-lived. And all it takes to make their life even shorter is one good storm, which is exactly what has happened over the last couple of days. One day they were a carpet of color. The next they were spread across the ground like nature’s dirty clothes.

New Green, 2012

My father tried for years to grow rhododendrons. They’re relatives of the azalea, and a staple of the Southern garden. But no matter how carefully he prepared and tended his Kempsville soil, not a single rhododendron survived in his yard.
The soil at our house is also not very forgiving. I’ve invested and lost enough plants that I don’t even want to contemplate the total cost. Over the years I’ve planted hundreds of hostas. Hostas thrived at our last house, but are little more than vole feed here.
It’s taken a few years, but I have learned that there are about a dozen things that will do well in our yard. Fortunately, rhododendrons turn out to be one of those things.
Ours is decidedly a spring garden. It’s prettiest this time of year. Once the roses and hydrangeas have done their thing by mid-summer, though, we have little that blooms until fall. The late summer focus changes to keeping things watered enough so that they’ll survive to the next season. I never realized until I moved here just how ruthless the stately trees our yard is so full of and that look so benign are when it comes to sucking all the ground water away from the smaller understory trees and shrubs. Those who think Nature’s all sweet and kind and balanced would do well to spend a season watching the trees and shrubs and perennials in our yard duke it out for moisture. It’s brutal!
It’s easy to focus on the colorful blooms of spring and summer. But for me one of the best parts of spring is the soft green shade of the new leaves that emerge from plants and trees. They’re the new growth, the symbol of rebirth, the sign of nature’s cycle, and the thing that keeps so many gardeners coming back. Later in the season they’ll turn darker. But for now they’re sweet as a newborn baby’s fingers and toes.  
And meanwhile, how about those rhododendrons?

Rhododendrons 2, 2012


  1. oh they are quite magnificent, aren't they? My new yard is full of azaleas and rhodos too, as was my neighborhood growing up, at least the azalea part.
    Here's the thing about rhododendrons: 50% of them planted do not "take" but die. This is a mystery still to plantspeople ( I have been to seminars on this). If they do take, you are set. They are hardy and will stay happy, usually. And that late summer "dry" ( in more than one way!) period is not unusual either, there is not a lot in most people's gardens still blooming by then...Usually then I wait for the burst of black-eyed susans ( rudbeckia) and mums in the early fall. And yes, the stately trees do compete with all of the understory plantings - only the strong survive, as Jerry Butler sang! ;-)

  2. oh, and I so totally agree about the color: "Spring Green" - there is absolutely nothing like it. The best part of spring, for sure.

  3. Your yard looks gorgeous! We always had tons of azaleas and rhododendrons at our house growing up--people used to stop and take photos of themselves in front of them all blooming. Now, we have azaleas, and I love them, but no rhodies. Our hydrangeas are ready to bloom--most years, it's almost June before they're out! Incredible...