Growing Azaleas

Add brilliant spring color with azaleas

Azalea

Azaleas are a subgenera of rhododendrons. They provide beautiful bright spring color that is appreciated by gardeners across the country. There are two basic types of azalea:

Growing conditions

If you can grow rhododendrons, you can grow azaleas. If your climate and soil support them, they can tolerate neglect for quite a while.

Azaleas do well in zones 5 to 9, but tend to prefer moderate temperatures and relatively humid conditions. Some hardier evergreens can survive zone 4 conditions. There are dozens of varieties, so the probability of finding one that will do well where you live is pretty good.

Like rhodies, azaleas like rich, acidic soil and thrive with a thick mulch that retains moisture but facilitates drainage. If you have friable soil with ample humus, azaleas should pose no problem. If, however, your soil leaves something to be desired—that is, it's sandy, clay, or otherwise lacking organic content—azaleas will not perform well without adding compost, leaf mold, or other amendments.

The soil pH needed to grow azaleas is on the acidic side, around 5.5–6.0. Other acid loving plants like mountain laurel or blueberry have similar soil requirements. If your soil tends to be on the limey side, planting your azaleas in raised beds makes it easier to create the ideal growing medium.

Azaleas (and rhodies) can be mulched with the leaves of other plants in your yard. Several inches added in the fall will protect the shallow root system from extremes in temperature. When mulch is thick and rich, no cultivation is needed and weeds are controlled; this produces an extremely happy plant.

Many azaleas can take full sun, but flowers bleach out quickly going from an intense fuchsia shade to a washed out pink in just a few days. For a healthier, happier plant, site azaleas where they get morning sun and bright filtered light for the rest of the day. By the same token, dense, unbroken shade is not conducive to azaleas.

Protect from hot western exposures and punishing wind. Plant on the leeward side of a fence, hedge, or building. This prevents damage to young buds especially during late winter and early spring.

Even moisture is very important to keep azaleas healthy. They wilt, droop, and drop leaves if the soil dries out.

Azaleas do very well in containers. A soil mix of even proportions of peat moss, vermiculite, potting soil, and coarse sand provides a good support medium. Plant in a large container to give roots plenty of room. In colder climates, bring plant indoors and place in bright window over winter. Put back outside in the spring.

Planting

Choose azaleas that are suited to your location. There are so many varieties with slightly different requirements, that you'll have the most success with types known to do well in your zone.

Azaleas should be planted with care given to the shallow root system. Dig a hole wider than the rootball, but only deep enough to contain all but the crown of the plant. Err on the shallow side. Planting your azalea too deeply can result in crown rot, one of the few guaranteed ways to kill your plant quickly.

Azaleas can be planted or moved any time of year as long as the ground isn't frozen. However, for best results, plant in the fall to give your plant plenty of time to settle in before winter hits.

Pruning and maintenance

Like rhododendrons, pruning isn't really necessary if you choose an appropriate plant for the location. Cleaning up after blooming is probably enough maintenance, however, if it's necessary, do your pruning immediately after blooms are spent. Removing dead branches may be as much pruning as needed.

The Japanese are extremely proficient at pruning generally and often prune their azaleas for form and structure. Books on bonsai could easily aid you in learning to prune your azalea to obtain Asian flair.

Problems

Azaleas are not subject to many pest problems. Deficiencies in soil pH, over watering and poor drainage, and sun scorching the most common problems. Testing and amending soil to alter pH, mulching, and siting well prevents most issues.


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