Since our Azaleas are blooming, we decided to provide some information and care tips in case you have some in your landscaping. You might have seen their blooms this spring while sipping a cup of coffee or tea as the sun rose. Azaleas are stunning, especially when planted in mass; if you haven’t been to Duke Gardens, you really are missing out.
Azaleas are like sweet tea in the South: they are a favorite to true Southerners and a must have. But growing them can be tricky.
Azaleas belong to the genus Rhododendron, which includes 800 species and 10,000 named selections (but who’s counting…) We are focusing on Azaleas for simplicity sake, as they are the easiest to grow of the Rhododendron species. There are both evergreen and deciduous Azalea species. Their blooms are funnel shaped and have five stamens. The color variety is astounding, to say the least, and they bloom on old wood; this means Azaleas set their blooms for next year on this year’s growth.
Where is the best place for planting Azaleas? They will do their best in partial or filtered sun, like under a tree canopy. If you do not have trees, planting on the north or east side of your property is best, as morning sun is cooler for their leaves. Too much shade will result in leggy shrubs with less blooms, so pick your spot wisely!
Planting Azaleas in straight clay is a crime, as is planting them in limy, alkaline soil. If you make this mistake, be aware of the angry garden gnomes that will show up at your front door – I can tell you, it isn’t a pretty sight. For those of you new to North Carolina who have not planted in your lawn yet, here is your PSA (public service announcement): buy a pickaxe and a shovel with a long, narrow blade, as well as proper soil. You can thank us later.
If you can’t plant in clay, then what do you plant in? We’re glad you asked. Azaleas thrive in a mixture of 50% organic material, 30% soil, and 20% sand or very small gravel. A good mixture like this will help hold air and moisture but also allow excess water to drain from the roots. Keep in mind, there are very few plants that thrive in clay, so having the above materials on hand really is a must.
Azaleas have shallow roots and absolutely hate sitting in water. You want to plant them with the root ball slightly above the soil level. Imagine laying the shovel handle on the ground: that is your ground level. When you plant your Azaleas, you want the very top of the pot soil to be a bit higher than the shovel handle; that is how you know you haven’t planted them too deep. Once they are established, never cultivate around the shrubs, since their roots are shallow.
Pruning is equally important for future growth. Evergreen Azaleas are dense, shapely plants. To keep them compact, it is recommended to pinch frequently (after flowering has ended) and continue doing this through mid-June. If your Azalea needs a really good trim, prune within three weeks after blooming so it will have enough time to produce buds for next season.
When it comes to food, everyone has to eat, am I right? Plants are living things and need food just like we do. Fertilize in spring after they are finished blooming. We offer Espoma products here at FGS; some of us use Espoma Holly Tone and have great results. Whatever you use, just make sure it’s a slow-controlled release, acid forming fertilizer. If you are unsure about your pH levels, we recommend Espoma Soil Acidifier as well.
Last but not least, Azaleas may experience fungal disease, lace bugs, or powdery mildew. Those who like to stay on their A-game will use an early spring spray with copper or neem to avoid some of these issues. We are happy to help if any pest problems arise. Either way, stay engaged with your landscape. Sometimes a walk in the lawn will lift your spirits and also save a plant that might need a bit of tender, loving care. And when all else fails, we are here to help!