IN THE GARDEN: Rhododendrons with sad yellow leaves should look much better come spring

Q:The leaves on my rhododendrons on the north side of my home in Northwest Arkansas are turning yellow and have brown spots [the reader sent a photo]. Do you have any suggestions to remedy this? I planted them two years ago in deep holes that were partially filled with pea gravel, per nursery instructions. I would appreciate any insight you may have. Thank you.

A:  The yellowing on your rhododendrons is dramatic, but nothing to worry about. All evergreen plants shed old leaves from time to time. Sometimes a plant will shed all of its old leaves at once, and the yellowing and falling leaves can be worrisome. You have a great number of flower buds set, and the leaves closest to the tips look great. Old leaves are the ones yellowing and falling off. The hot, dry weather may have taken a toll. Hopefully, they will sail through the winter, bloom well in the spring and put on new foliage. Nothing to do now but wait for spring.

Q:  I just received my hydrangeas in the mail from a nursery. They waited to ship them until planting time, but this cold front has really messed me up. When should I plant them now? I want to keep them alive.

A:  I wonder what type of hydrangeas they are. If they are the traditional big leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla, with the large pink or blue blooms) you have two options. One is to plant them in the ground and monitor the winter weather, protecting them during extreme cold. You could also plant them in containers and move them into a protected place in extreme cold, then plant them in their permanent location next spring. Bigleaf hydrangeas have suffered in the past few cold winters. Oakleaf or panicle hydrangeas should be fine to be planted in their permanent location now. You do need to pay attention to rainfall levels in the winter, and consider watering prior to a cold spell if we have not had ample rainfall.

Q:  I am just curious why you appear to disagree with the practice of not raking leaves in the fall or making an area they can be raked to ... most anything other than burning or shredding for compost. Perhaps your suggestion in today's Q&A [see] was for those who can't resist raking every inch. Unless you do not believe leaving the leaves is good for butterflies, looks like you could offer some alternatives to total destruction. Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

A:  I think there is room for all practices when it comes to leaves -- except for burning, which we cannot do in our city limits. I do not agree that you should let a thick layer of leaves cover a lawn or a flowerbed. If that happens, there will not be a lawn or plants left next spring. Heavy layers of whole leaves will pack down and exclude sunlight and moisture from getting through -- which is a great method for weed control in bare areas. I do rake or blow leaves into areas of my yard where I want to prevent weeds or random plants. I have a natural walkway on one side of my house that I layered with cardboard and then cover with leaves annually, and I don't have to mow or manage it the rest of the year. I also put leaves in other "natural areas." I use shredded leaves as mulch in flowerbeds and vegetable gardens. The shredded leaves are a great mulch, and as they break down will enrich the soil. Shredded leaves break down much faster than whole leaves. Since I personally don't want a traditional compost pile in my yard, I use the passive approach and let piled up leaves break down, just not on my lawn or in my perennial and vegetable gardens.

Retired after 38 years with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Janet Carson ranks among Arkansas' best known horticulture experts. Her blog is at Write to her at P.O. Box 2221, Little Rock, AR 72203 or email