Hand Carved and Painted Realistic Wooden Bird Sculpture
Tom Ahern Rhododendrons
In the early 1980's after Tom turned his bird carving hobby into a full time profession, he found a new hobby. Tom admired a friend's deciduous azalea garden for years and after buying an old farmhouse with an acre and a quater of land on a sloped mountainside, he and his wife Barbara started upgrading and customizing both house and garden. There was brush to clean up, leveling to be done (three tri-axle loads of top soil) and major renovations to the 100 year old house.
In 1986, a friend invited him to a meeting of the newly formed Lehigh Valley Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. He quickly became involved in chapter activities and started a life-long interest in rhododendrons. He found society members to be friendly and helpful in his quest to stock his garden with both old favorites and the new cutting-edge plants.
He developed a friendly relationship with his mentor, Hank Schannen, who encouraged him to try his hand at hybridizing rhododendrons. He dabbled with some pollen that Hank shared with him for a few years and then was invited on a week-long trip to the West Coast to visit and meet Seattle area hybridizers and nurseries. After this trip, he set out to bring the beautiful but tender warm color rhododendrons to the East Coast. Because those tender plants are not able to withstand our cold winters and hot summers, we've found that pollen from them can be used to fertilize our hardier plants to create a more cold and heat tollerant plant with warmer colors that is able to grow and prosper in the Mid-Atlantic area.
Since it takes from four to five years for a rhododendron seedling to bloom, the hybridizing process takes some patience. If you can stand the wait, the results are rewarding.
This page is designed to show the results of close to forty years of work in the garden and in hybridizing these beautiful plants. You will also find instruction on how to propagate, grow and maintain rhododendrons.
A rhododendron is not the kind of plant that you pull out of a pot, stick it in a hole in the ground and expect it to prosper. Actually, that is the way that I started out but found out that they didn't grow the way that was expected.
Back in the late eighties, my family and I were hiking in the Great Smokey National Park and came upon a fallen hemlock tree that was covered in moss. There must have been at least a hundred rhododendron seedlings growing on that tree, which meant that the roots were growing in
the decaying bark. That encounter started me thinking about the conditions the plants do best in. I started mixing fine pine bark mulch with the soil (one part soil and one part pine bark) when putting in a new plant or transplanting an existing plant. Another thing that I found was that
the plants do really well when a four to six inch coating of wood chips were used as mulch around them. You can actually see how the plant roots grow into the decaying chips when an older plant is dug up to be transplanted.
A local tree service keeps me supplied with chips and there is always an ample supply when needed.
An important step in planting a potted rhododendron is to rough up the root ball after it is removed from the pot. Sometimes these plants remain in the pot for years and become rootbound. A hand digger works well to pull the roots apart. Sometimes a knife must be used to cut the roots that have grown around the sides of the pot.
The last step after planting is to water the plant at least once a week for the first year. Rhododendrons grow best in damp (not wet) soil. If there are drought conditions as we had here in the Eastern US in the summer of 2022, it will probably need more watering.
Ahern rhododendron hybrids
The following are some of the hybrids produced over the past fourty years
There is no need to buy expensive deer sprays. If you are having trouble with deer nibbling at your prize plants, try this. Spray with whole milk with a half spoonful per gallon of dish detergent added to make the milk stick to the leaves. Coat the leaves and try not to let an excess amount of milk drip to the ground. We find that mid November is a good time to spray and then again in February. If you have a heavy population of deer, you might need to spray more often.
Trimming your plants
In order to have a more compact plant, rhododendrons should be trimmed. If you start when the plant is young, it is easier to control the look of the plant when it becomes mature. In the following sequence of photos, you will see the results of trimming a single shoot.
This photo shows the plant ready to be trimmed. Notice that the single shoot itself is larger than the main plant, causing the plant to be out of proportion.
Notice that the shoot was cut about 3/4 inch above the bottom. The theory is that the plant reads that there is still a stem to grow and it contonues to send growth hormones to the stem.
After two weeks you can see the buds at the junctions of the upper leaf stems starting to enlarge and grow.
In another two weeks you can see the shoots continuing to grow
As the shoots mature you can see how much more compact the plant has become.
This is a photo of the same plant two years later. The shoots were not trimmed. It shot out all this new growth all by itself. I pose this question to you: is it possible that a plant can be trained at an early age so it will continually grow in a compact manner on its own?
One of the best and least expensive ways to increase your number of plants is by rooting your own cuttings. They can be taken from your plants, from plants of neighbors and friends or even public gardens with permission. The best time to take cuttings in the Mid-Atlantic region for deciduous azaleas is the beginning of June, for evergreen azaleas, the beginning of July. Rhododendrons can be taken any time from the beginning of August through October. The next sequence of photos shows how to do it.
This is a 34 quart Sterilite container that can be purchased from Walmart. Be sure that it has a clear top
Drill a series of 1/2 inch holes in the bottom for drainage
Make up a soil mix of
two parts fine pine bark mulch
one part peat moss
one part perlite
Add this mix to the container to a depth of four inches. Water it well making sure that the mix is totally drenched. We usually do six rows across the flat and stick the cuttings six deep for a total of 36. Be sure to make straight rows. (You will be thankful for that when you go to transplant).
Your cutting should be taken from the last four inches of the current years growth. Be careful. Sometimes the new grouth might be only an inch or so long. If you take a cutting with part of last year's growth, chances are almost zero that it will root. Try to choose shoots without flower buds. It has been brought to my attention by my friends of the Mason Dixon Chapter that after you take your cuttings, put them into a plastic bag with a few drops of water to keep them hydrated and store them in the refrigerator for two weeks to condition them.
Remove all but the four top leaves, cutting them close to the stem. Be sure not to cut off the small buds at the upper part of each leaf stem. This is where the new growth will come from.
Cut the four leaves in half. This is done so the remaining leaf material doesn't draw as much energy from the base of the cutting
Wound the last 3/4 inch of the cutting stem on both sides with a sharp knife, making sure that the cambium layer is exposed.
Dip your cutting into a ten percent solution of Dip'n Grow for at least ten seconds and no more than one minute. If you prefer another rooting hormone, that's fine.
Push the cuttings into the soil mix up to the bottom of the existing leaf stems. Be sure to label each new group of cuttings so they don't get mixed up when they are transplanted in the spring.
If you want to add a bit of insurance, you can spray a fungicide on your cuttings before you put the top on your flat. It can now be stored in an outside location with as much light as you can give it without it being in direct sunlight at all during the day.
Before the temperature goes below freezing in the fall move the flat inside and put it under lights. Two of these flats fit nicely under a 48 inch flourescent light fixture. We usually set a timer keeping the lights on fourteen hours a day. Once a week or so, lift a corner of the flat. If it feels lighter than usual, bottom water it.
In the spring, after the threat of frost is over, the flat can be taken outside. Keep the top on until you are ready to transplant. Check to see if the cuttings have rooted. If they have, they can be transplanted into gallon pots using the same soil mix that you used for the cuttings. After transplanting we sprinkle about a teaspoon full of fertilizer on top of the soil. We use Ntricote Total controlled release fertilizer with micronutrients 18-6-8 type 100. If some of the cuttings haven't rooted, they can be left in the flat with the top on. There is a possibility they need more time to produce roots. Some plants don't root well and need to be babied. Some are worth the extra time and some are not. You can always try again next year.