Talking about Rhododendrons and Azaleas with Dan Turner, Director of the Award-winning Specialist Rhododendron and Azalea Nursery, Millais Nurseries

Talking about Rhododendrons and Azaleas with Dan Turner, Director of the Award-winning Specialist Rhododendron and Azalea Nursery, Millais Nurseries

When we think of Rhododendrons and Azaleas, we tend to imagine lush, leafy plants adorned with an abundance of large and blousy, colourful flowers in May.  May is undoubtedly the main flowering season for Rhododendrons and Azaleas and we celebrate these magnificent plants in all their glory now, making this the ideal time to visit Millais Nurseries, our local, award-winning Rhododendron and Azalea growers.  Millais Nurseries are truly invested in these endearing plants and cultivate a vast range of species and hybrids at their specialist Rhododendron and Azalea nursery in Farnham.

Azalea Juniduft is a deciduous Azalea that produces these lovely scented flowers in May and June. These plants usually reach around 125-150cm (4-5ft) tall, ten years after planting. Azalea Juniduft was bred by Hans Hachmann in Germany. This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.

Whilst you’re visiting Millais Nurseries, make time to enjoy a walk through the Millais family’s private, five-acre woodland gardens at Crosswater Farm.  The gardens are usually closed to the public, but whilst the gardens are at their peak in May the family open the gardens especially to raise funds for charity via the National Gardens Scheme.  During May 2024,  Crosswater Farm gardens are opening from 2pm until 4pm from Tuesday to Saturday (the gardens are closed on Sundays and Mondays).

At Crosswater Farm, visitors can discover a plantsman’s collection of Rhododendrons and Azaleas, including rare species that generations of the Millais family have collected from the Himalayas, and hybrids raised by the family.  Visitors can admire everything from petite alpine dwarf plants to tall, architectural, large-leaved trees.  The gardens also feature tranquil ponds and a stream.  Companion plantings on display include Sorbus, Magnolias, Japanese Acers, as well as many recent new plantings.

I recently enjoyed chatting all things Azalea and Rhododendron with Millais Nurseries’ Manager, Dan Turner.  I was eager to find out about Dan’s favourite Rhododendrons and Azaleas to provide interest for ten months of the year and discover Dan’s top tips for growing Rhododendrons and Azaleas.  I first just want to quickly say that I usually use all my own photographs and show you plants I’ve grown myself, but this post is full of photographs taken by Dan Turner and David Millais of plants grown by Millais Nurseries.

Dan Turner, Millais Nurseries’ Manager

Dan Turner has been fascinated by growing Rhododendrons and Azaleas for a long time; he has worked at Millais Nurseries for over seventeen years.  Dan started out working in Millais Nurseries’ propagation department, which was where his field of interest lay at the time.  After spending three or four years working in propagation,  Dan worked his way up to become the Nursery Supervisor, and five years ago,  Dan was promoted to become Millais Nurseries’ Manager.  Dan is very proud of the hard-working team that work alongside him; together they’re a team of seven.  When Dan started at Millais Nurseries there were just four members of staff, but both the team and their production area have since grown in size.  Millais Nurseries now propagate between 800 and 1000 different types of Rhododendrons and Azaleas every year, with approximately 140,000 plants held at the nursery at any one time.

Dan tells me that Millais Nurseries have spent a long time expanding their range to ensure they have a vast range of plants with the full range of flower colours, shapes, sizes, and scents, but they’re continually on the look for new plants to extend their flowering season.

David Millais and his father spent time hybridising late-flowering, deciduous Azaleas, which has given Millais Nurseries a good range of later flowering plants to enjoy in the summer months.  We can appreciate these later flowering plants more, as they bloom when we’re most likely to be spending more time outside in the garden, compared to springtime when (as we’ve found this year!) it can be colder and wetter, and we don’t spend as long outside.  Dan and his team regularly trial new cultivars and evaluate their plant collection to ensure they’re growing the strongest and the best of the Rhododendron and Azalea cultivars available.  If a new plant performs well and impresses them, they will make room for it on the nursery.

Take Dan’s advice and extend the season of interest by growing early, mid-season, and late flowering Rhododendrons and Azaleas

During January and February, Dan admires the flowers of Rhododendron nobleanum and Rhododendron dauricum.  Another of Dan’s favourite early flowering plants is Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ AGM with its lilac-pink coloured blooms that slowly fade to white after opening.  This early-flowering Rhododendron can be brought undercover in late summer, and with some added warmth and light from autumn until December, Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ can be encouraged to bloom on Christmas day. T here’s no need to do this, plants can be grown outdoors in the garden without any protection, and they’ll be fine.  When grown outside in the garden, Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ usually flowers in March; its large blooms are a treat for early flying bumble bees!

Rhododendron Pinguin is a bushy plant that produces these handsome lilac flowers with striking markings in May. Pinguin thrives when grown in a soil with a pH of around 4 to 7.5. After ten years growth, Rhododendron ‘Pinguin’ plants usually reach around 100-125cm (3.2-4ft) tall. Rhododendron ‘Pinguin’ is a hybrid Rhododendron that was bred by H. Hachmann in Barmstedt, Germany. Pinguin’s parentage is Hachmann’s Kabarett’ X (‘Scintillation’ X ‘Germania’). This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.

Once April arrives, Dan’s attention is diverted by a deciduous Azalea called ‘April Showers’ with its scented, sweet-lemon-coloured flowers.  By the time the main Rhododendron and Azalea flowering season commences in early May there are so many wonderful coloured flowers and flower shapes that it’s difficult for Dan to single out individual plants, as there are so many worthy contenders to consider but Dan tells me that some notable plants at this time of year include Rhododendron ‘Pinguin’ with its pale lilac blooms that are so daringly stamped with deepest-inky-maroon-coloured markings that remind me of an imprint of handsome male peacocks with their full-feathered plumage immortalised in their finest display pose.  In May, Dan admires the cherry-pink flower buds of Rhododendron yakushimanum ‘Koichiro Wada’ AGM, which open up to reveal soft-pink blooms that fade to white as they age. Dwarf Rhododendron ‘Sarled’ AGM produces gorgeous, snow-white, trumpet-shaped blooms.

Rhododendron yakushimanum ‘Koichiro Wada’ AGM produces elegant, apple blossom coloured, bell-shaped flowers in May. This charming Rhododendron grows to just 50-75cm (1.5-2.4ft) tall, ten years after planting. This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.
Here’s a look at Rhododendron Sarled’s charming, trumpet-shaped, snow-white coloured flowers. Rhododendron Sarled has been awarded an RHS Award of Garden Merit. This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.

June gives way to the flowers of Millais Nurseries’ selection of late-flowering deciduous azaleas.  As summer arrives, the salmon-pink flower buds of Azalea ‘Irene Koster’ AGM unfurl to show their apple-blossom-coloured flowers with golden freckles. Another highlight for Dan in June is the peachy toned flower buds of Azalea ‘Midsummer Wedding’ that open up to reveal magnificent pure-white flowers with lemon-chiffon-coloured highlights over the petals and attractive, whiskery stamens.

The late-flowering deciduous Azaleas and some extremely late-flowering, tall hybrids bloom from July to mid-August, including the delightfully scented rose-pink blooms of Rhododendron ‘Pink Polar Bear’.  In Autumn, the crimson blooms of Rhododendron ‘September Red’ bloom for their second flowering of the year (both Rhododendron ‘September Red and Rhododendron ‘Autumn Joy’ enjoy their main bloom time in May and produce a welcome second flowering in September) and the stunning rose-pink and white blooms of Rhododendron ‘Autumn Joy’ with their gorgeous dark-magenta-coloured freckles.

Growing Rhododendrons and Azaleas in containers

I am an advocate for planting directly in the soil wherever possible, as it’s far easier to grow plants successfully in the ground and this is the most sustainable way to garden; however, we’re not all fortunate enough to have the opportunity to plant in the soil. If you have a patio garden, you’ll be pleased to know that most evergreen azaleas, dwarf rhododendrons, and compact rhododendrons will grow perfectly happily in wide containers, providing the plants are especially well watered in July and August, as this is when the new flower buds for next spring are forming.  If Rhododendrons and Azaleas don’t receive enough water in summer, they won’t produce any flowers next spring.

Dan advises that container grown Rhododendrons and Azaleas should be fed at least twice a season with a slow-release fertiliser (once in March and again in June).

Which Rhododendrons and Azaleas are best suited to container growing?

Azalea ‘Johanna’ produces these large, vivid crimson coloured flowers in May. Ten years after planting, Azalea ‘Johanna’ plants usually grow up to around 75-100cm (2.4-3.2ft) tall. Azalea ‘Johanna’ was bred by Vuyk van Ness in Holland. This photograph was taken by David Millais.

Dan’s favourite container plants include Azalea ‘Niagara’ AGM, which has very large, open, pure-white flowers and soft green foliage.  If you’d prefer a container plant with a more vibrantly coloured flower, another of Dan’s recommendations is Azalea ‘Johanna’ AGM, which has carmine-red flowers, complimented by dark green foliage that turns purple over the winter months.  Another option that Dan suggests is the April-flowering, Dwarf Rhododendron ‘Peter Bee’, which forms a neat, compact bush with crisp, yellow flowers in springtime.

Rhododendron ‘Peter Bee’ flowers start life as green flower buds in April that open up to reveal soft lemon yellow coloured flowers. Ten years after plant, Rhododendron ‘Peter Bee’ plants usually reach around 25-50cm (1-1.5ft) tall. tall. Rhododendron ‘Peter Bee’ was bred by W.E. Berg, in America. This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.

Pink flowers are often popular.  Dan recommends Dwarf Rhododendron ‘Ginny Gee’ AGM, which delivers soft-pink flowers that fade to white as they age.

Rhododendron Ginny Gee produces these colour changing flowers in April. These blooms start life as bright pink flower buds, that open to reveal pale pink flowers that fade to white. Dwarf Rhododendron Ginny Gee AGM is a small Rhododendron that grows up to about 25-50cm (1-1.5ft) tall after ten years growth. Rhododendron Ginny Gee was bred by Warren Berg. This photograph was taken by David Millais.

Growing Rhododendrons as replacements for Box (Buxus)

Another particularly interesting plant is Rhododendron ‘Bloombux’, which has fairy-tale-pink coloured flowers, but more impressively this plant can be trimmed as tight as Buxus, making this Rhododendron a perfect choice if you’re looking for a replacement for box hedging. (Buxus plants are susceptible to a fungal infection known as Box Blight and the foliage on these plants is devoured by Box-tree Moth caterpillars, therefore plants with similar characteristics to Box are often sought.)

This is Dwarf Rhododendron Bloombux Magenta INKARHO an evergreen Rhododendron with small leaves and clusters of pink bell-shaped flowers with white centres. This is a close up photo, which makes the leaves look larger, but in reality the foliage is tiny and this evergreen Rhododendron that can be used as a replacement for box (Buxus). Dwarf Rhododendron Bloombux Magenta INKARHO will grow happily in a range of soils, from very acidic soils all the way up to pH7.5. This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.

If you’re interested in finding out more about overcoming problems with Box (Buxus) plants, visit the European Boxwood and Topiary Society’s website).

Which Rhododendrons are most suited to growing in shade?

If you’ve got a shadier patch of garden and are wondering whether Rhododendrons could grow here, Dan recommends a couple of Millais Nurseries’ taller hybrids for growing in shady spots; including Rhododendron ‘Markeeta’s Prize’ AGM, which has a bright scarlet-red flower that’s decorated with maroon freckles.  In contrast, Dan’s other recommendation for shadier areas, Rhododendron ‘Belami’ has light, rose-pink flowers with dark-red coloured blotches; this unusual, contrasting colour combination provides a different and distinctive plant with flowers that can really brighten up a shaded area.

Are there any tips for getting individual Azalea and Rhododendron plants to flower for longer?

Dan tells me that the key to enjoying longevity during flowering is tied up with volume of water the plants receive.  Once Rhododendrons and Azaleas start flowering, the more water the plants receive – the longer their flowers will last.

Plants growing in a shadier position often flower for longer compared to the same plants grown in warmer, sunnier parts of the garden.  Water doesn’t evaporate as quickly in the shade, meaning the roots of plants grown with some shade will have more reliable access to water.  The shade also alleviates the extreme heat of heat waves and gives plants some protection from the record-breaking summer temperatures we’ve experienced in recent years.

What is Dan’s favourite scented plant?

Dan tells me that the flowers with the most iconic scent are produced by deciduous Azaleas; his preferences are for Azalea luteum, this also has great autumn colour along with Azalea viscosum, and hybrids of A. viscosum.  Dan appreciates Azalea viscosum and Azalaea viscosum hybrids’ glaucous-blue foliage, which for him is an added bonus in addition to their small, highly scented, star-shaped flowers.  Azalea viscosum’s common name is Swamp Honeysuckle, which gives an idea of the scent.

Azalea luteum produces these amazing, sweetly-scented yellow flowers in May. This deciduous Azalea grows up to around 125-150cm (4.1-4.9ft) tall, ten years after planting. This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.

What’s Dan’s best advice for growing Rhododendrons and Azaleas?

Dan stresses that the biggest piece of advice he can ever give – whether you’re planting a Rhododendron or Azalea into a new pot, or planting in the ground – is not to plant it too deeply.  These are really shallow-rooted plants; their root systems really do need to be near the surface and not buried under deep layers of soil, compost, or mulch.  Dan’s advice is to plant Rhododendrons and Azaleas at the same depth (or slightly proud) of the depth they’ve been grown at in their pot.

When is the best time to mulch Rhododendrons and Azaleas?

Dan recommends mulching Azaleas and Rhododendrons in late autumn or early spring.  Millais Nurseries use wood chip for mulching; a medium grade bark would be ideal. Dan stresses that it’s vitally important to avoid mulching too deeply around the stems of Rhododendrons and Azaleas, as this creates the same negative effect of being planted too deeply.  It’s advisable to leave a clear ring of bare soil all around the plant’s stem; this acts a bit like a watering hole to allow the stem to breathe.

Growing peat-free Rhododendrons and Azaleas

I am a passionate advocate for peat-free horticulture and so the inevitable question that I always ask when talking to growers and nurseries is, ‘Do you raise your plants in peat-free growing media?’

Dan tells me that they’re not completely peat-free at Millais Nurseries yet, but they are actively working toward peat-free cultivation and by the time Dan has completed his spring potting, Millais Nurseries will be roughly moving towards cultivating 50-60% of their plants in peat-free growing media this autumn.

Prior to spring 2024, most of the plants they sold were raised in a 65% peat reduced compost.  Millais Nurseries are continuing with peat-free production and have just taken delivery of another 40m cubed of peat-free potting compost, which will be used to produce more peat-free plants ready for sale in autumn.

Trialling Rhododendrons and Azaleas in peat-free growing media

Millais Nurseries currently have two large-scale, Peat-Free Trials underway, including one Growing Media Trial that features products from four different peat-free growing media manufacturers.  Each trial features 40 cubic meters of peat-free compost.  These days, the nursery’s peat-free trials are run on a larger scale, as they are now moving faster towards 100% peat-free production.  Dan admits that this is probably slightly faster than they had anticipated, due to ecological pressures; however, going peat-free is a positive move and something Millais Nurseries feel is important to be actively and genuinely working towards.

The biggest difficulty Millais Nurseries have experienced with converting from peat-based growing to peat-free cultivation is during the propagation stage.  Once the plants have been propagated successfully and have developed roots and leaves and the plants are ready to progress out of the propagation section,  Millais Nurseries’ Rhododendron and Azalea plants will root readily into their new peat-free compost.

Dan admits that they have to give their peat-free Rhododendron and Azalea plants a little more feeding, but on the whole, the peat-free plants they have raised would be indistinguishable from identical plants raised in any peat-based growing medium.  The peat-free plants that Dan and his team have cultivated would be an equivalent size and at the same stage of growth where Dan would expect plants grown in peat-based compost to be at this time of year.  Dan finds physically getting his cutting to root is actually still the only difficulty he faces with peat-free cultivation.  This is not something that Millais Nurseries are saying ‘they can’t do’, it’s just taking longer to get a full solution for propagating cuttings using peat-free growing media.

Since Millais Nurseries moved over to peat-reduced and peat-free growing media, the amount of fungus fruiting bodies present in their composts has increased.  This is perfectly natural and not something to be alarmed by – it’s not a problem or concern for Millais Nurseries.  We find toadstools growing in peat-free composts.  Certain species of mycorrhizal fungi have life-long, symbiotic relationships with plants where they grow and support each other.

From late June throughout July, Azalea ‘Summer Peach’ produces these unusual coral coloured flowers with large peach coloured blotches. Plants feature dark blue-green foliage. Azalaea ‘Summer Peach’ will reach heights of around 125-150cm (4.1-4.9ft) ten years after planting. This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.

Buying peat-free Rhododendrons and Azaleas

It’s easy for customers to find peat-free Rhododendrons and Azaleas on Millais Nurseries’ website; there’s a green peat-free sign proudly displayed next to all their plants that have been raised in peat-free growing media.  The number of peat-free plants Millais Nurseries have available has dwindled a bit, which is an indicator of good sales and customer demand.

What peat-free compost do Millais Nurseries recommend for growing Azaleas and Rhododendrons?

Dan recommends Bulrush Peat Free Ericaceous compost for growing Rhododendrons and Azaleas; this product is stocked and sold by Millais Nurseries.

What’s Dan’s favourite Azalea or Rhododendron species?

As he considers the many Rhododendrons and Azaleas he has cultivated, Dan tells me that if he was contemplating his favourite plants, he would have to consider something like Rhododendron pachysanthum. Dan likes this species’ leaf shape, the interesting tomentum (a mass of downy hairs that form a felt-like protective covering over the upper leaf surface), and the woolly indumentum found underneath the leaves.

Another positive vibe for this species that Dan appreciates is that Rhododendron pachysanthum plants reach flowering size at a relatively young age, which opens this species up to a wider section of the amateur market.  Many of the true species Rhododendrons and Azaleas don’t flower until they’re ten or eleven years old, by which time many people have moved on from their garden or got fed up waiting for their plant to flower!

What can you do if your Rhododendron hasn’t flowered?

Dwarf Rhododendron Sarled AGM flowers in May and is an ideal choice of Rhododendron to grow in a container. Ten years after planting, these Rhododendrons usually reach around 25-50cm (1-1.5ft) tall. Rhododendron ‘Sarled’ was bred by: C. Ingram in the 1950’s in England. This photograph was taken by Dan Turner.

Insufficient watering during the summer months of July and August, whilst your plant’s flower buds are developing is most often the reason for Rhododendrons and Azaleas not flowering as beautifully. Dan tells me that watering really helps encourage plants to bloom.  A high potash feed will help to harden the plant off and trigger the plant to start thinking about producing flower buds.

If your Rhododendron or Azalea hasn’t bloomed yet, it might be that your plant hasn’t yet matured enough to reach flowering size.

David Millais cultivates a number of Rhododendron kesangiae plants that he wild collected back in 1992.  We’ve now reached the year 2024, which remarkably is 32 years after David collected his plants and currently only one of David’s Rhododendron kesangiae plants has produced a single flower and that is it!  Happily, this Rhododendron species is grown more for its foliage and leaf interest than for its flowers.  Rhododendron kesangiae plants have large, architectural leaves, which grow to around 30-40cm long, and probably about 15-20cm wide (by the time the plant has reached flowering size).

David Millais has now taken active retirement from Millais Nurseries. David is now focusing his energy on growing Azaleas and Rhododendrons in his gardens at Crosswater Farm, in Churt, Farnham.

After dedicating the past seventeen years of his life to working for Millais Nurseries,  Dan Turner has now purchased Millais Nurseries and is excited to be the new owner and Director.

NB: The Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit

The Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit is a prestigious award that is presented to cultivars that are deemed by the RHS experts to be ‘Excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions’.  There are other stipulations – AGM plants must be widely available and of good constitution; these award-winning plants must be stable both in their form and colour and should be reasonably resistant to pests and diseases.

Plants that have been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit have the letters AGM after their name and an image of a trophy is often displayed on their plant labels.

Millais Nurseries opening times

This Nursery opens to the public from 9.30am until 4.30pm, from Monday to Friday.

If you can’t visit Millais Nurseries in person, don’t worry – Millais Nurseries sell plants online via their website.

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