The ABC's of Azaleas

These popular plants rank right up there with moonlight and magnolias. Here's how to grow them.
Glenn DiNella

Take a look around your neighborhood this spring. If you live in a warmer section of the South, chances are you won't have to travel very far to spot confectionery clouds of pink, white, red, or lavender blooms surrounding a home.

Evergreen azaleas are not native here, but they've been welcomed with open arms since they arrived in the early 1800s. It's easy to see why the South overflows with these plants. For starters, they're evergreen, which is always a nice quality. Second, they offer a mind-boggling variety of flower form, color, and size.

Whether you're contemplating a new landscape plan, adding to your existing garden, or just looking for tips on caring for the azaleas you already have, here are some guidelines offered by Hank Bruno, trails manager at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia. This 14,000-acre garden, nestled in the southernmost foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, could be called the Super Bowl of azaleas. It features hundreds of types of azaleas that can be grown in the Southeast. Hank conducts workshops teaching visitors how to grow them. As it turns out, this is not astrophysics. Actually, growing azaleas is as easy as A-B-C.

A: Begin With Good Design.
"What I'm seeing in the home landscape is a lot of people are not being very judicious in their use of color," Hank says. "When you've got the vibrant colors that azaleas have, I recommend people select different hybrid groups with different bloom times so they aren't blooming side by side at the same time. Either that or try to harmonize the colors, which is what we're doing here with our plantings. But what I worry about is that people start clashing colors, and the yard looks like a cacophony instead of a concert."

If you want to put together a first-rate symphony, a conductor can tell you that you need to group your instruments; scattering everything randomly would not lead to harmonious music. It's the same with azaleas. Mass plantings of a single color will lend a graceful appearance to your garden. (If you're into heavy metal music, you might not be afraid of mixing lavender and orange blooms.) Pastels are easier to work with because the colors tend to harmonize well.

Another design strategy that keeps Hank awake at night is alternating red and white azaleas as a foundation planting, especially against a redbrick house. "If you want to use two colors, put them in blocks rather than alternating them," he says. "We try to encourage a color scheme that appeals to the individual homeowner. We're not trying to dictate the color; we just try to emphasize a little bit of discretion."

 

B: Plant It Right.
If you want your azaleas to enjoy a long and healthy life, you need to give them a good start. "Soil is the key, as with any plant," Hank says. "They like acid soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6. You have to plant them in well-drained soil with lots of organic matter. Drainage is paramount."

Hank recommends preparing a raised bed for your azaleas, tilling or forking in aged pine bark, leaf mold, and compost. This is particularly important if your soil has a lot of clay. "Individual holes usually end up acting like sinks in our clay soils, and you pay the price," he cautions. "You get water held in the bottom of the hole and that sends root rot right on up to the crown." Once the soil has been properly prepared, add fertilizer before planting. Work in a slow-release variety such as cottonseed meal at the rate of 1 cup per plant. You can also use one specifically formulated for azaleas. Apply at the rate recommended on the label.

When planting azaleas, Hank leaves about 2 inches of the root ball above the ground. He then mounds soil up to (but not on top of) the root ball and finishes up with 2 to 4 inches of mulch to hold in moisture, prevent weeds, and protect the tender new plants from cold. They'll need a thorough soaking at least once a week for the first year while they get established. They also appreciate highly filtered shade, such as that from tall pine trees, to protect them from the full brunt of the sun's rays.

C: Maintain Your Azaleas.
Once your azaleas are on their way, they are relatively easy to maintain. "Azaleas are not heavy feeders," he says. "As they're sending out those new roots, if they come in direct contact with fertilizer it will burn them." In spring after the plants have flowered, he adds a slow-release fertilizer such as a 12-5-9.

To keep your azaleas blooming and to maintain their shape, prune them after they've finished blooming. "I usually tell folks if you haven't done it by July 4th, it's too late," Hank says. "If you prune later than that, you're going to lose flowers next year." The only other time to prune is to remove dead or diseased wood, which can be done anytime. Simply prune back the dead branches until you find green wood. If you suspect a disease, sterilize your pruner blades with rubbing alcohol or a 10% bleach solution between each cut to prevent spreading the disease. The caution is worth the time, because anything you can do to keep your azaleas happy means a few more jubilant blooms hailing springtime in the South.

To see the efforts of Hank Bruno and his garden staff, visit the Callaway Brothers Azalea Bowl at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia. For information call 1-800-225-5292, or visit www.callawaygardens.com.