Azaleas: Three Questions to Ask Before Buying

Ask yourself three questions before buying and planting these beautiful bloomers.
Rebecca Bull Reed

I have a soft spot for azaleas. I associate them with Easter egg hunts, Masters Tournament golf, and my Aunt Nana. I can smell the light perfume of a 'George Lindley Taber' azalea in my dreams. But over the years, I have fallen in and out of love with azaleas. This fickle relationship is partly my fault, as there have been times when I haven't followed my own advice and remembered to ask these questions before planting them.

  • How much light do I have?
    Azaleas perform best when placed in dappled light or in areas that receive morning sun and light afternoon shade. Large beds beneath tall pines or wooded borders are perfect. Direct, hot sun will scorch leaves, and plants will become susceptible to spider mites and lace bugs. Given too much shade, azaleas may not flower at all.
     
  • What kind of soil do I have?
    Azaleas love moist, acid, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter. They won't thrive in heavy clay or nutrient-deficient sand. If your soil is beyond amending, consider planting in raised beds or containers. When planting several azaleas, prepare the entire bed instead of just the hole. The bed should be slightly mounded so excess water drains away from plants. It is critical for azaleas' survival that they receive regular water during their first two years while getting established.
     
  • What are my expectations?
    Azaleas should be a part of the garden, not the garden. Sure, they'll be gorgeous for two weeks, and you may even extend bloom time over six weeks by planting early-, mid-, and late-season selections. But you still have 46 more weeks in the year. Landscape architect Ben Page of Nashville is a fan of using deciduous azaleas in conjunction with evergreen ones. "They add fragrance, an extended color palette, and winter and summer interest," says Ben. Most important, they loosen the look and provide contrast in the landscape. "Be patient," Ben advises. "Young deciduous azaleas may not immediately look as nice as evergreen ones, but the payoff is worth the wait."  

Design Tips for Planting
For the best effect, plant azaleas of the same hue in generous drifts, and sandwich them between other shrubs. To guarantee that the flower color matches your existing azaleas and complements your home, buy plants while they're in bloom. When in doubt, white is usually a safe bet. Resist the temptation to plant one of every color. 

Attractive foliage and ultimate size should guide your selection when using azaleas close to your house. To avoid excessive pruning, buy an appropriate azalea selection for the space. Ideally, shrubs should fall 6 inches beneath the sill of a window at their tallest. If you must prune, do so immediately after they flower.

A Wealth of Options
For backdrops and screens, use tall-growing azaleas such as vigorous, evergreen Southern Indica Hybrids, including 'Formosa,' 'Mrs. G. G. Gerbing,' and 'George Lindley Taber.' Plant them in drifts as you would other evergreen types, or use as accents. Many deciduous azaleas make wonderful small trees. Good ones to try include Piedmont azaleas ( Rhododendron canescens), flame azaleas ( R. calendulaceum), and the Knap Hill-Exbury Hybrids. Expect heights to range between 4 and 12 feet.

In island beds, borders, or near the home, use medium-height azaleas, 3 to 6 feet tall. Examples include cold-hardy Glenn Dale Hybrids, such as 'Fashion,' 'Copperman,' and 'Glacier,' as well as dense, small-leaved Kurume Hybrids, such as 'Coral Bells' and 'Sherwood Red.'

For small gardens, choose more compact azaleas. Heights range between 1 and 3 feet. Late-blooming Satsuki Hybrid favorites include 'Gumpo,' 'Bunkwa,' and 'Flame Creeper.' Cold-hardy North Tisbury Hybrids may stay low, but allow at least 4 feet for them to spread out. Selections include 'Alexander,' 'Michael Hill,' and 'Pink Pancake.'

This article is from the April 2005 issue of Southern Living.