Walker County Extension AgentThere are a few plants which I really feel like most any local landscape should not be without. One of these plants is azaleas. While I am a big fan of native …
Walker County Extension Agent
There are a few plants which I really feel like most any local landscape should not be without. One of these plants is azaleas. While I am a big fan of native plants and I realize most of our commercial nursery bought azaleas are not natives, there are a few selections of native azalea (often termed correctly or not as “wild honeysuckle”) which do well here. Many of these native azaleas are deciduous rather than evergreen. While there are many choices in native azaleas that can work if planted correctly and in the appropriate spot (note that planting them in a heavy clay soil in full direct sunlight is about the best and quickest way that I know of to kill most any azalea especially the native ones). Piedmont azaleas have a very fragrant pinkish bloom that are among the earliest to bloom out. Florida azalea or austrinum species which bloom yellow, orange, or combinations of those colors can also make a great addition to your landscape. There are also many other native azaleas including the relatively rare “Alabama Azalea”. In any event, the azaleas both native and non-native will soon be coming into bloom. Most Southern landscapes include a few azaleas, and many landscapes that I have seen around town use them not only as borders for row planting but also in colorful and showy group plantings. I enjoy riding around town in the early to mid spring to enjoy other people’s hard work with their azaleas.
I have been asked several times here lately about how to care for azaleas once they bloom. One of the biggest problems I see is our tendency to overfertilize them. I’m not real sure what it is about us home gardeners when we get hold of a sack of fertilizer but it seems that we just can’t ever put enough. It’s the old “if a little is good then more is better” mentality and I must admit that I have been as guilty as anybody. Actually, too much fertilizer, especially very high nitrogen fertilizers, can actually be damaging to your azaleas. Your very young azaleas are especially sensitive to too much fertilizer. Use no more than one teaspoon of fertilizer at a time around very small plants less than twelve inches in height. For larger plants, use one heaping tablespoon per foot of plant height. Scatter the fertilizer under the plant and be careful not to get it on the foliage. You can apply fertilizer on top of mulch; however, I usually change out the mulch right after the blooms drop off anyway, so if you change your mulch, apply the fertilizer to the ground and then mulch over the top. It will be much better if you make a light fertilizer application right after your azaleas bloom and another in July instead of applying it all at one time.
The best way to avoid overfertilizing your azaleas is to have your soil tested every two or three years and follow the recommendations. If you don’t have a soil test, use an “all purpose” fertilizer such as 8-8-8 or 12-6-6. There are also several azalea-camellia type fertilizers available that will do a good job as well. These fertilizers can be more costly but they do have the benefit of making the soil more acidic and they are convenient. There are also some very good organic fertilizers available for azaleas and other acid loving plants as well. In particular, cottonseed meal makes an excellent azalea fertilizer. It acidifies the soil as well as providing nitrogen and other nutrients in a slow release manner.
Azaleas can be pruned without damaging the plant and without interfering with future flower production. I once had a neighbor who could never get his azaleas to bloom properly no matter what he tried. He had soil tested and fertilized, mulched, and pampered the plants excessively. What he didn’t take into account was the timing of his pruning. As it turned out he was winter pruning his azaleas during their dormant period much like they were oak trees. In Alabama most azaleas begin to set flower buds in early July. Therefore, pruning after early July will reduce (or remove) the buds that will form next year’s flowers. The best time to prune azaleas is immediately after the flowers have dropped off during the spring.
Cut out the limbs that have grown out of the main body of the plant and also remove any dead, diseased, or damaged limbs. Don’t shear your azaleas unless your intention is to create a formal hedge, espalier, or topiary plant. Shearing or “buzz cutting” can detract from the natural form of your azaleas.
Azaleas can become too large for the area they are growing in, especially if they are used as a foundation planting around the base of your house. If this happens, wait until after they bloom and cut them back to within approximately twelve inches of the ground. When the new growth buds appear on the stem, the new stems and leaves will grow rapidly. Pinch out any long unbranched shoots that develop to force your azalea to branch. Be sure to keep the soil moist for several days after pruning.
Mulching is also very important for your azalea because it keeps the soil from drying out too fast and reduces weed competition. Pine straw is my personal favorite mulch as it is readily available and mostly because it is relatively cheap. Shredded pine bark is also a great mulching material. I prefer shredded pine bark to pine nuggets since nuggets tend to wash away very easily. By all means avoid black plastic (or plastics of any kind) to mulch your azaleas. Landscape fabric (which is often incorrectly called black plastic) is acceptable since it will allow better air and water penetration into the soil than will plastic mulches; however, I prefer the natural organic mulches.
Spread the mulch out beyond the outer leaves of your azaleas or else mulch the entire bed as one planting. After the mulch settles, it should be no more than two to three inches deep.
Finally, spring and early summer are prime times for insects to damage your azaleas. One of the most common insect problems on azaleas is lace bugs. Lace bugs live on the underside of you azalea’s leaves and turn give the upper surface that all too familiar white mottled appearance. Aphids are also common insects on azaleas. Both of these insects are attracted to the lush new spring growth that your azaleas put on after blooming and the subsequent pruning. Control insect pests on your azaleas with an insecticide that is labeled for use on your azaleas and make sure that you read and follow the labeled directions.