How to prune rhododendron – and when to prune them

Learn how to prune rhododendron to keep your shrub well shaped and covered in blooms

common purple rhododendron ponticum
(Image credit: Debi Holland)

Ever wondered how to prune rhododendron? These seemingly common shrubs can sometimes be a mystery to gardeners. They are often overlooked as large plants that can swamp garden spaces, but rhododendrons are border stalwarts and when in flower demand attention. 

Rhododendron is, on the whole, a low maintenance woodland shrub and due to its reliable nature often used in ornamental landscaping. Preferring a pH between 4.5-5.5 rhododendrons favor acidic soil, they make are excellent choices for flower bed ideas in shadier spots, and with the right care grow well in pots. 

This fascinating diverse genus of plants has over 1,000 colorful species of evergreen shrubs and deciduous rhododendron and azalea, with palettes ranging across the spectrum from white, yellow, orange and red through to pinks and purples. These prolific bloomers are also a big hit with pollinators. 

Rhododendron macrophyllum is the US state flower of Washington and commonly found in the Pacific Northwest; Rhododendron maximum is prevalent throughout the Appalachian Mountains in North America, featuring in the West Virginia flag and is the state flower of Virginia.

Whether you grow dwarf Rhododendron impeditum ideal for USDA zones 5-8, to giant Rhododendron 'Broughtonii' trees, hardy down to -5°F ( -21°C), that can live for over 130 years, there is a variety apt for most gardens. It is important to know how to prune rhododendron to keep them looking their best and blooming year on year.

How to prune rhododendron – evergreen varieties

Rhododendron arboreum var. roseum

(Image credit: Gina Kelly / Alamy Stock Photo)

Our advice will focus on how to prune evergreen rhododendron, which will differ from how to prune azaleas.

The fundamental basis of pruning is to reduce height, maintain plant health and invigorate new growth and blooms. Methods will often be similar for other flowering shrubs.

The first step is to take a good look around your shrub. Note its shape, overall health and condition. Remove any dead, diseased or damaged material and check if there are any visible pests or problems.

Pruning helps avoid shrubs becoming completely overgrown but how do you prune rhododendron to maintain a natural look?

Pruning young rhododendron

using secateurs to prune an apple tree in winter

(Image credit: John Swithinbank)

Even young rhododendron can sometimes need a bit of pruning to encourage new, stocky growth.

‘On young rhododendrons, or those which are looking a bit sparse, we recommend pinching out single growth buds as they start to swell to encourage multiple branching. This will ensure that your plant retains a nice bushy shape,’ says David Millais, owner of rhododendron specialists Millais Nursery (opens in new tab), experts in the art of rhododendron pruning. 

‘Simply snap out the leading growth bud at each whorl of leaves as they start to expand. Instead of one lanky shoot, you should gain three to four bushy shoots from the buds above the leaf petioles, each of which can support flowers the next season,’ he adds.

How to trim and shape a rhododendron

pink rhododendron bush

(Image credit: Debi Holland)

An important part of pruning a rhododendron is shaping and crown lifting.

SHAPING – ‘I avoid "snipping" away small bits as you can end up with a "hedged" look – flat on one face rather than a nice rounded shrub. Look carefully at the misplaced branches, find a node, where the branches are coming out in a whorl, and remove the central extension growth. This will allow those lateral branches to quickly hide the pruning scars,' explains Bethan Pettitt, head gardener at The Brantwood Trust (opens in new tab).

CROWN LIFTING – Another way to enhance the look of your rhododendron is to lift the crown or as Bethan Pettitt likes to call it, ‘stem beautifying.’

‘In thick, tangled areas of large, mature rhododendron where you don’t want to remove the plants or hard prune, as they might be an important screen – or privacy hedge – clear spindly growth from the base and main branches showcasing the wonderfully twisted, contorted shapes of the multi-stemmed trunks,’ she advises

'This sometimes requires a little follow up the next season. Simply run your hands over the stems the next year removing any soft sappy regrowth, it’s a satisfying task,’ she adds.

Pruning can often feel like sculpting. As gardeners we are essentially helping nature to create a piece of living art.

‘If shafts of light make it through the canopy, highlighting the stems and playing over the fallen blossom on the woodland floor, then all the better,’ says Bethan.

white flowers of rosebay rhododendron or rhododendron maximum

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How much can you cut back a rhododendron?

Established old rhododendron eventually may need a heavy prune to rejuvenate the plant. Prune on a frost-free day when the shrub is dormant during late winter to very early spring.

‘Sometimes radical coppicing is required, but this will open up a large hole in the landscape. Unfortunately, there are no half measures, and it is best to cut hard back almost to stumps, so that growth starts low down to create a bushy plant from ground level,’ David Millais advises. 

‘If possible, leave a few green shoots to help draw the sap up through the plant. New growth starts from dormant buds below the cut, forcing their way through the old trunks during May and early June. Species with smooth bark typically do not respond well to coppicing,’ he adds.

flowering rhododendron shrub

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How do you prune an old leggy rhododendron?

If left unpruned, over time rhododendron can become leggy and unsightly, pruning is then essential to regaining a stocky shape.

‘When pruning rhododendron that are getting a bit large for their space, I select a range of the oldest, thickest or most badly placed stems and remove them right to the base of the plant,’ Bethan Pettitt advises.

How to care for a rhododendron after pruning

After pruning, mulch your shrub with peat-free ericaceous compost or leaf mulch. If you are growing rhododendrons in pots as part of your container gardening ideas, then remove the first few inches of soil and top dress with fresh compost. Water with rainwater and ericaceous feed to give plants a boost while they recover from their prune.

Rhododendron have shallow roots so be careful not to over or underwater them as this can affect your plant's health. 

Rhododendron

(Image credit: The Joy of Plants)

When should rhododendrons be pruned?

The best time to carry out 'heavy pruning of rhododendrons is in February to March, when the plant has plenty of energy after the winter and just before the sap rises in the spring,’ explains David Millais. 

’Our rule of thumb is that if you can cut a branch with secateurs, then prune straight after flowering, but if significant pruning and a saw is required, then do so from February to March,' David adds.

The exact timing and month might vary slightly depending on the area where you live and the arrival of spring weather.

If a rhododendron is not flowering, this may be because ‘plants pruned in the late summer or fall will have few blooms due to removal of flower buds. The proper time to prune is in the spring, immediately after flowering has finished,' says Bob Weissman of the American Rhododendron Society (opens in new tab).

Timing is essential when is comes to pruning; if left too late in the year, it will have an adverse affect on flowering. 

‘Prune straight after flowering so the plant has time to grow new shoots and form flower buds for next season. Longer shoots from the previous year can also be pruned back to a whorl to encourage bushy growth,’ explains David Millais.

Heavy pruning will have a greater affect on flowering but is sometimes necessary to bring a leggy rhododendron back under control.

’Be prepared to lose the flowers for a year – or two – but the re-growth will be much better and you should gain a healthy and bushy looking plant,’ he adds.

Pruning tools to use

An important part of learning how to prune rhododendron, is having the correct tools for the job.

Pruning can be achieved with a sharp pair of secateurs but for larger branches you may need loppers or even a saw.

Whatever tools you use, always ensure the blades are sharp to make clean cuts without leaving jagged edges, which could encourage fungal diseases to enter wounds.

‘Be sure to clean any equipment used carefully to prevent the spreading of diseases, such as Phytophthora,’ says Bethan Pettitt.

Always clean tools with a disinfectant before pruning different plants to prevent cross transfer of diseases.

What happens if you don't prune rhododendrons?

While pruning will maintain a good shrub shape, there is often no need to prune rhododendrons at all – simply deadhead after your plant has finished blooming at the end of spring to ensure that all the plant’s energy is concentrated into producing foliage and not seed. 

If your garden plot allows, leave rhododendron to grow naturally with minimal intervention. Of course, if it out grows its space you are now armed with all the expert information needed on how to prune rhododendron successfully to maintain plant health and maximize blooms.

Debi Holland
Debi Holland

Debi Holland runs her own garden business in the south of west of England, gardening in beautiful country homes, and also writes for numerous online and print publications and presents online talks advocating ‘Gardening for Wellbeing.’