THE mild spring we've enjoyed over the last few weeks has certainly brought some benefits, and this year's display of rhododendrons and azaleas is all set to give us yet another reason to be thankful.
Not only have the warm temperatures enticed some early bloom this year, but the absence of any hard frosts has ensured these will be in bountiful supply.
Rhododendrons are one of the largest families of plants we grow in the UK, and one of the best loved too. Visit almost any stately home or garden over the next few weeks and the chances are you'll be greeted by a blaze of rhododendron bloom.
But rhodos aren't just a plant of the past reserved for the parklands of the affluent, they are very much a plant of the moment and lend themselves well to the modern trends of "instant" and container gardening.
Included in this already extended family of rhododendrons are the azaleas, both deciduous and evergreen species, that all enjoy the same conditions as their cousins.
To grow rhodos and azaleas you will need to satisfy their two key requirements — a cool, partially shaded position and a lime free soil.
Given the option, a rhododendron will almost certainly choose the dappled shade under the canopy of trees such as birches.
Here they will receive enough shade to protect them from sunburn and excessive summer heat, but enough light to encourage growth and ripen potential flowering wood.
These conditions are often referred to as a woodland setting. It is here that they provide a perfect partnership for other shade loving plants as on the whole they tend to be quite compact plants, so they won't invade their neighbours.
While Mother Nature produces her own lime free soils, it's much harder for us to replicate (at least with any long term success), no matter how hard we try.
Soils that can be termed borderline can be frequently replenished with plenty of organic matter so long as the plants are regularly treated to a helping of a fertiliser with a high iron content.
And if you're not lucky enough to have a rhodo friendly soil the answer is simple — containers.
Fortunately both rhododendrons and azaleas possess very compact root balls, and thus adapt well to both transplanting and container culture.
As long as the plants are situated in partial shade and lime free (ericaceous) compost is used they will be perfectly happy. It's not surprising therefore that these are perhaps the most popular shrubs of all for this style of gardening and the garden centre will provide a bumper selection at this time of year.
Vine weevil, the long term dreaded foe of rhododendrons, is fortunately much easier to keep at bay these days thanks to a number of new products on the market. "Provado" or nematodes (Nemasys) provide the easiest solutions.
Simply water into the soil and compost and your plant will be protected from the little grubs that would otherwise love to spend their time munching your rhodos' roots.