By Bob Parrish
Did you know that the word azalea comes from the Greek word dry? Azalea varieties also number over 30,000. Many thousands have been named and developed through countless decades by the Japanese. It has been long thought that azaleas thrive under dry conditions and thus the Southeast is an azalea haven in the U.S. When you drive along the coastal areas of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, you know its spring when you see azaleas blooming under giant Live Oaks hanging full of Spanish moss not to mention the dogwoods and cherries blooming near by.
I had the good fortune to live and work in Mobile, Alabama upon graduating from college and witnessed first hand how beautiful azaleas could be in the landscape, especially with Mobile Bay as a backdrop. After my first summer, I came to love this plant and the many different colors and species there are. Potting up over six and one half million one gallon azaleas that summer also had a little bit to do with me becoming fond of this plant. Whew!!
But azaleas also thrive in the northeast and even along Long Island and just south of the Great Lakes and even along the Pacific Coast. Not all varieties live just anywhere, but most do well in the South. Azaleas need a moderate amount of water, nutrients, and well drained acidic soil. Azaleas are shallow rooted just as dogwoods are and can not do well under constant soggy soil conditions. A ph of 5.7 – 6.0 is desirable and allows the azaleas to take up nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. The soil needs to be somewhat open and not hard packed clay as azalea’s roots are fibrous.
When planting azaleas, it’s better to put them in raised beds consisting of soil, compost, and in some cases with a little peat moss if the conditions are too dry. In wetter locations you may need to bury corrugated drain pipe so water can drain even from a raised bed. Also, the addition of a thin layer of mini-nuggets, shredded bark or pine straw helps retain moisture and insulates the roots from extreme cold and heat. Plant your azaleas about 1-2 inches above the hole and pull your backfill up to the top of the root ball and form a bowl to catch water. Planting them a little above the hole let’s azaleas settle naturally and avoid from being planted too deep to begin with.
Okay, my azaleas are through blooming. What do I do now?
As you azalea groupings finish blooming, it’s okay to prune them and remove dead wood. Whether you like an open growing azalea or a tightly balled azalea is up to you, but some varieties grow very slowly such as pink or white Gumpo or very vigorously such as Formosa or George Tabor. When you select azaleas, also research if they can take full sun or need a little more shade. Deep shade makes azaleas stretch and have weaker branches while too much sun can blister leaves and branches on some varieties. Most azaleas like morning sun and afternoon shade if that’s possible in your landscape. I’ve had better success with azaleas planted in the fall as they are able to adjust to their new home over a period of time. When in full bloom the plant goes through quite a bit of stress when you disturb the roots while trying to maintain blooms at the same time. Overgrown azaleas shade out many leaves in the bottom and you will see a lot of bare stems. These can be cut back hard to stimulate new growth form the base of the plant. You’ll have to look at some bare sticks for a while but in most cases they will come back with moderate watering, a fresh mulch layer and of course fertilizer. Always use a slow-release fertilizer such an 8-9 month slow release. Most garden centers and seed and supply stores stock slow release fertilizers such as osmocote. If a 8-9 month formulation is not available look for 3-4 month slow release fertilizer and fertilize in spring right after blooming and again in late July to allow the plant sufficient time to take up nutrients before it’s time for the azalea to slow down and get ready to go to sleep for the winter. Trying to force azaleas to grow too long past late October will not allow sufficient time to harden off and thus an early freeze can cause an azalea’s worst nightmare, split bark on the main trunk. This usually shows up in spring when an azalea begins to wake up and starts growing again and some of the fertilizer carries over and becomes active again with an early warm up and sudden freeze such as we had the first week of February of this year. Also, don’t prune azaleas past August 15th as this is the time azaleas slow down some what and begin to set bloom buds even though they are not visible.
Well, let’s review what we’ve talked about before we forget:
- Azaleas thrive in well drained acid soil with moderate water and nutrients. Raised growing beds in very tight clay soils helps azaleas get established with greater success.
- Select azaleas recommended for the area you live in. Most all varieties do very well in the South. Early blooming varieties such as Hino Crimson, Christmas Cheer, Coral Bell, Snow, Pink Pearl and Hershey Red may need temporary protection such as a sheet for those all of a sudden temperature drops of late frosts. An azalea only needs about 8 weeks at 38? F for it to set bud and an early warm up will cause them to bloom too early.
- After blooming is over go ahead and prune azaleas to shape and remove any dead wood. Apply a slow release fertilizer such as a 3-4 month slow release or 8-9 most slow release. Clean up old leaves and re-mulch thinly too allow some airflow to the roots and not smother. Take a soil test to check acidity and adjust according to the recommendations from the test. Always complete pruning and fertilizer applications by July or so.
- Pests to consider (we forgot to consider the bugs). Azaleas attract lace bugs and azalea caterpillars. Lace bugs feed on leaves underneath and digest the chlorophyll causing white splotches in the leaves. When you bump some leaves in your hand or on a white piece of paper you can see the tiny black insects with lace like wings. Azalea caterpillars are large and black with red stripes and have large red heads. They feed on leaves and young stems. They are capable of completely defoliating an azalea in one day when they appear in great numbers. Spraying these insects with a widely used insecticide such as Orthene or Sevin will kill these insects and repeat in about 10 days.
A fall applications of horticultural oil will get the lace bugs you missed so they can’t over winter and hatch out at the first warm day of spring. Sometimes drenching the soil with insecticide can help stop a third pesky little varmint called the strawberry root weevil. They sneak up out of the ground at night and make those small little holes in azalea leaves and then go back into the ground during the day. They work the grave yard shift while you’re dreaming of a beautiful azalea garden.
- Plant azaleas anytime but during the fall is best to allow the plant to root in and get established during the cooler months. There’s less stress on the root system and less watering you have to do during the hot summer if you plant in the spring and roots are not established yet.
Well, there’s a lot more I could tell you but these are the basics. An azalea blooms for only a short time except the new varieties such as an Encore, but that brilliant splash of color is so beautiful. So, when you need to settle back and kick up your feet, drink some ice tea while laying in that hammock under a Live Oak covered with Spanish Moss surrounded by beautiful blooming azaleas.
Thanks for Listening