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In the Garden

Q: In December, I passed a rhododendron in full bloom. Is that normal?

A: There are a few rhododendron varieties that bloom in the heart of winter. You probably saw R. ‘Rosamundi’ or R. ‘Christmas Cheer’. These two rhodies are so similar, only experts can tell them apart. The lovely round trusses of light-pink blossoms often open right on cue for Christmas, then fade to a soft white. Both of these rhodies are slow growing, eventually forming compact domes of 3 to 4 feet tall. They can take sun, but they retain darker-green foliage when planted in a bright location protected from hot afternoon sunlight.

Another rhody to watch out for in winter is the Korean rhododendron (R. mucronulatum). A rarity among rhodies, this one is deciduous and drops its leaves in fall. In mild winters the irresistible display of eye-catching blossoms cover the bare branches in early January. The flowers on the straight species are gorgeous rosy-purple, but the variety ‘Cornell Pink’ features blossoms of bright pink.

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Korean rhododendrons have a spiky, upright habit and grow to 5 feet tall. The leaves turn rich shades of yellow and crimson in fall. This beauty is best located in bright shade or morning sun. It’s best next to a walkway where passers-by can appreciate the lovely winter flowers.

Flowering on all winter blooming rhodies will be delayed in very cold winters. If we get a hard freeze soon after the flowers open, the blossoms will turn brown and you’ll have to wait another year to enjoy the cheery winter display.

Q: I planted what I thought was a dwarf hinoki cypress in our front yard. It’s 8 feet tall and blocking one of our windows. Is it harmful to prune it down a bit?

A: Buying a dwarf conifer tree is similar to bringing a pooch home from the puppy rescue. You have no idea how big it’ll get! Fortunately, every variety of dwarf hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana’) that I know of is very tolerant of pruning. As long as you follow a few guidelines, these trees can be lowered by as much as 2 feet without causing any harm or ruining their natural beauty.

Begin by lowering the height of the tallest branches by cutting them back to vigorous side shoots further down in the tree. Always cut just above a side branch as these trees don’t bud on old wood and stubbed off branches will die.

Next trim the fan like foliage on the remaining top branches to recreate a natural-looking tapered shape. One problem with lowering the height of a hinoki cypress is that it tends to make them grow wider. If you don’t want a chubby tree, shorten side branches by cutting them back to healthy shoots.

Don’t worry if your pruning makes holes in the canopy. The unsightly accumulation of dead, brown needles that always seems to occur in the interior of these trees is greatly reduced by allowing sunshine inside the canopy. The more you open the canopy, the less dieback will occur, making for an even more attractive tree.

Ciscoe Morris: “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV.

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