Pruning Azaleas -- When & How

The azaleas in front of Grumpy's palace are in full bloom now and looking glorious. But they wouldn't be if they hadn't been pruned at the right time. They'd be boring, green blobs. Here's how to prune azaleas correctly and avoid the state of green blobness so prevalent in our neighborhoods.

What to Prune

There are two classes of azaleas -- native azaleas and Asian azaleas. Native azaleas, sometimes called "wild honeysuckle" for their fragrant blooms with long stamens, are deciduous. They never need pruning, so the rest of this epistle is not about them.

Asian azaleas are the evergreen ones almost everyone in the South, including yours truly, feels compelled to plant. They come from Japan. Within this class, there are two popular groups. Kurume hybrids, like 'Coral Bells,' 'Hino Crimson,' and 'Hershey's Red,' are dense, compact plants with small, glossy leaves, that grow 3-4 feet high. They bloom early and the flowers nearly hide the foliage. The seond class are called Southern Indian hybrids. They grow at least twice as large and much faster than the Kurumes and aren't as dense. They also bloom about 1-2 weeks later and aren't quite as cold-hardy, so you see them mostly from the Carolinas south. 'George Taber' (pink), 'Formosa' (purple), and 'Mrs. G.G. Gerbing' (white) are popular varieties.

When to Prune

Timing is critical if you want your azaleas to bloom next year. The best time to prune is within a three week period after they finish blooming in spring. This gives the azaleas plenty of time to make flower buds for next year. If you prune in summer or fall, you'll cut off the flower buds and assure green blobness next spring.

How to Prune

DO NOT (repeat) DO NOT USE HEDGE TRIMMERS to shear azaleas into tight boxes. This looks awful and results in foliage and flowers that exist only on the outer inch of the shrubs. Instead, use mostly hand pruners. Reach inside the shrub and cut back branches to slightly different lengths to create a cloudlike, mounding shape. Loppers may be necessary to prune thick branches. Kurume hybrids grow much slower than Southern Indian hybrids and usually require pruning only once in 4-5 years. Southern Indians grow fast and depending on where they're planted, may need it every year.

Drastic Measures I Confess To

When Grumpy bought his palace many years ago, the first thing he did was rip out the cheapo $1 shrubs the builder planted in front and replace them with 6 small 'George Taber' azaleas. He pruned them with hand pruners every spring after blooming. They grow so vigorously, however, that eventually they'd grown up to the dining room windows and the branches were too thick to cut with hand pruners. Drastic action was required.

Azalea murder in progress. Weapon sighted. Branches cut.

As your hero and mentor, it pains me to say this, but Grumpy resorted to azalea murder. The azaleas needed to be reduced in size by half. This required loppers. I cut back the thickest branches first. I showed no mercy.

Crime completed. Body parts collected. Neighbors horrified.

Yes, I knew my azaleas were going to look awful. In fact, after pruning they looked like butchered sticks. But here's the cool thing about evergreen azaleas. Unlike many shrubs, you can cut them back beyond the foliage to bare wood. In a couple of weeks, the bare sticks will leaf out fully and no one will know that you pruned.

This is how my George Tabers looked just a few days ago as they just started blooming. No green blobness at Grumpy's house.

And here's how they look today. The District Attourney has decided to drop all charges.

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