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How to Prune & Deadhead Rhododendrons

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Learn how to prune rhododendrons & azaleas:

If you want to learn how to prune rhododendrons, we’ve got you covered. And we’ve even included visual steps for deadheading rhododendrons too.

Plus, the good news is, you can fine-prune these beautiful plants just about any time of year. But, that’s only true if you take care not to cut off all the flower buds.

Let’s face it: sometimes you get to pruning when you have the time. And not every plant can be pruned successfully at the same time as every other plant.

But rhodies are quite forgiving on timing your pruning cuts.

Learn how to prune rhododendrons like this one.

When should rhododendrons be cut back?

  1. Don’t prune rhododendrons if they are flowering. Except if you want to cut a few flowers for a vase.
  2. Don’t prune if they are just getting ready to flower. That’s because you’ll miss the best of their blooms.
  3. Don’t prune rhododendrons if it is frozen outside. That’s because you can easily break a branch.
  4. And, remember, if you hire someone who wants to shear your plant in February, odds are they’ll cut off all of your spring rhododendron flowers! That’s because the plant has already grown these flower buds in order to bloom a few months later in spring (or thereabouts).
  5. If you’re pruning rhododendrons in spring, summer or autumn, be sure to check for hornet nests. That’s because they love to build their summer homes in rhodies. And this is extra true of neglected plants.
  6. Watch out for nesting hummingbirds and other birds in your rhododendrons. (If you love hummingbirds, check out this peek video of them nesting in the flowering rhodie shown here.)

Some pruning rules are made to be broken.

And your garden and plants may require a bit of rule bending. But generally speaking you can follow these rules to trim rhododendrons after they bloom. As well this will help you rejuvenate an old leggy rhododendron. Plus, when you prune this way, you may not end up asking if rhododendrons can be cut back hard!

Most importantly, if you don’t know how to properly prune woody plants, join our online gardening classes for step-by-step lessons in how to prune all kinds of plants.

Rhododendron in need of pruning

Before we began, this foundation evergreen rhodie was filled with dead branches on the interior. And, it had lots of deadheads to clean too.

And you will need some basic tools to prune a rhododendron…

  •  You’ll need a pair of bypass pruners.
  • And, a folding handsaw.
  • Plus, a tarp will come in handy when you prune your rhodies.
Rhododendron needing pruning

Before pruning, this rhodie had lots of interior dead wood. To make cleaning up all the detritus we would be cutting, we spread a plastic tarp underneath it.

By the way, did you know that all azaleas are rhododendrons?

Yep, Rhododendron is actually a genus of plants into which the azaleas are also classified! So, it makes sense that learning how to prune rhododendrons means learning how to prune azaleas too.

But, generally speaking, azaleas are twiggier than rhodies. So, for azaleas you’ll probably be making a lot more small cuts than you would on bigger rhodies.

Pruned Rhododendron

Fine pruning these plants means you don’t shear them.

Shearing means cutting only the exterior of the plant. And that means you’d be ignoring dead materials.

Plus, when you shear, you usually end up creating even more dead branches on your shrubs.

In fact, one sign of a good pruner is you can hardly tell they’ve cut anything from your plants. And, the plant don’t look like heavily manicured, unnatural shapes.

However, fine pruning leaves our plants in better shape inside and out.

When we clean up the interior of the plants, sunlight and air flows through them. And this helps reduce pest and disease issues in many garden situations.

Moreover, done right, proper pruning reduces long term maintenance. And it leaves your plant looking natural.

Plus, you’ll probably really enjoy the gorgeous rhododendron bark too when you can finally see it!

Often the sign of a good pruner is you can hardly tell they've cut anything from your plants.

This rhodie has been fine pruned on the interior. And, the deadheads are gone. It almost looks like nothing happened. And, that’s a good sign.

Next up: a visual guide to deadheading your rhododendrons.

First, it’s a total myth that your rhodies won’t bloom if you don’t deadhead them. In fact, rhodies will bloom abundantly even if you never remove a single deadhead.

But, you’ll have to look at those ratty seed heads all over your evergreens throughout the growing season. And you’ll be looking at a jumbled mass of dead material piling up in the interior of your plant over the years.

So, removing pruning rhododendrons to remove deadheads is really an aesthetic choice.

However, it is not a critical pruning move in order to keep rhodies flowering.

Here’s how to deadhead Rhododendrons after they flower:

After a rhodie has bloomed, grip the old flower head between your fingers. And take care not to damage flower or leaf buds or stems surrounding the old parts.

Deadheading a rhododendron.

Next, bend the flower remnant from between any new growth. And do this by hand rather than with clippers. Plus, you might want to wear gloves so your fingers don’t get sticky.

deadheading a rhodie

Usually, rhodie deadheads snap out easily & cleanly. But if part of the deadhead remains, pinch that out as well. Or snip it clean with your hand shears.
Deadheaded rhodie

And one final reminder on how to prune rhododendrons…

Before you make a cut, it is important to recognize the plant’s different kind of growth buds. That’s because a flower bud from leaf is different from a stem bud.

So, if you recognize the difference, you can easily avoid cutting off flowers. Moreover, this should help you consider when rhododendrons should be cut.

What does a rhododendron flower bud look like?

Rhododendron Flower Bud

New Leaf growth on a Rhodie

Pruned and deadheaded properly (or even not at all), rhodies and azaleas can live for many generations. They provide evergreen interest during the dull days of winter, a blast of spring color & pollinator forage in every color of the rainbow, and they provide the backdrop against which summer & fall color will glow.

26 comments on “How to Prune & Deadhead Rhododendrons

  1. Garden Mentors on

    Jesse, thanks for the question. If you’re removing all the new growth, it doesn’t make sense that the plant would be getting taller. That’s because if you’ve taken off anything new, then the plant isn’t growing anymore. So, not really sure how to answer the question. Want to clarify?

  2. Tai on

    If I’m reading this correctly it sounds like pruning is just taking off the deadheads. What about removing the dead branches?

  3. Peggy Rohrer on

    I have a number of Rody’s and I am terrified to prune them. Three of them are probably 15 years or more, and they have a lot of dead wood in the center. I would like to cut them way back.

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