Our weather in central Pennsylvania has veered toward the gloomy in the last week of May, and under the canopy of the newly-leafed oak trees that tower over my yard and those of my neighbors, my house feels too cool and grey for my tastes. Everything inside feels too “close” to me, if that makes any sense. But outside my picture window, the blooms on my rhododendron have held me transfixed: for the second year in a row, the blooms are big and floaty in a way they never were before in the twenty-some years I’ve lived here. I attribute the change to a happy accident — an overzealous pruning I did back in August of 2015, when at the end of summer, everything in my yard struck me as too shaggy. I have no idea how to prune things properly — I find that when I’m in the mood to lop off excessive growth, I’m too impatient to research what rules one should follow. I just start hacking away. And that summer I knocked off numerous branches from pine trees before uprooting (or so I thought) every strand of bishop’s weed, hosta, and wild grapevine from the bed in front of my picture window before stopping short in front of the rhododendron. I had never felt any love for this gigantic bush: it wasn’t something I had planted — like every other plant in this unruly bed, it came with the house, and after so many years, it looked like it was intent on swallowing the house. I hated its shapeless, shaggy mass of leaves so I just started lopping and trimming the hell out of it, taking away most of its bottom branches, until it looked like a small tree. I liked the shape of it much better — it had a visible trunk (not like a normal tree has, but its two main branches twisted together to somewhat resemble a trunk) and a round, lollipop mound of leaves on top that looked quite attractive after they were liberated. I had no idea whether this rhododendron would ever bloom again, but at that point in time I didn’t care. The new silhouette was becoming and gave the bed a sense of definition.
By the following spring , I think every hosta, grapevine, and bishop’s weed came back double-fold to the bed I had so carefully razed and mulched and replanted in coral bells. But the rhododendron? For the first time in my life, this shrub that is so common to yards across the northeast United States became something new and beautiful to my eye. Its blooms were huge, buoyant, and, at the same time, graceful. Pruning them to the extreme that I did imparted airiness that allowed the blooms to look distinct rather than a wookie-like tangle of cotton-candy flowers and overgrown vegetation. When this year’s flowers are finished blooming, I will prune it again (I didn’t touch it last year) as it is already starting to acquire a bushy amount of new growth.
As I mentioned before, this was a happy accident, and I don’t intend to sound like an expert, because I’m very obviously not. However, I felt compelled to write about it as a reminder that it’s sometimes worthwhile to take a big risk in the garden. If this rhododendron had died, I would have been left with a big hole in that space that I would have had to replace, but the risk seemed worth taking since I had grown to resent this plant. And in this case, manicuring a shrub that most people (where I live) tend to leave in its wild state turned out to be a good move for me, giving me more control over my garden space and making me see the plant in a whole new light.
Photos: my own.