Azaleas on the Move

Lose the spilled-crayon look. Plant a swath of single-colored azaleas for greater impact.

Easy Growing: Azaleas
Don’t rein in the magic when shrubs such as ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangeas put on a boisterous show. Plant them on the street side of the fence for all the neighbors to see. Photo: Ralph Anderson

Orchestrating a springtime concert of color is a snap, especially when you anchor your plantings with the season's virtuoso performer--the azalea. These blooming beauties rate as one of the region's signature plants, an all-time favorite among Southern gardeners.

Undoubtedly, the reason azaleas are so wildly popular is the sheer showstopping power of their flowers. And where one azalea looks good, you can bet that five will look even better. The secret to staging a springtime extravaganza is grouping azaleas that bear blossoms of the same color.

Ideally, the first step in creating swaths of a single color is purchasing shrubs when they are in bloom. Then you know for sure that you're getting plants of the same color. When it's not possible to buy them in flower, select azaleas based on the named selection on their tag. If it turns out that blossom hues don't match their tags, you can dig up the plants and move them.

If that task sounds daunting, don't waste a moment worrying. We offer advice to help get you started. After some digging and rearranging, you can compose a harmonious planting that sings of spring.

If you purchase an older home, the yard may be filled with a variety of azaleas, creating an unattractive polka-dot effect.

For more impact, relocate the plants for a solid-color sweep of blooms. You can solve two problems at once by massing them under large, mature trees, where it's difficult to grow grass.

Always get help when moving larger plants, as they can be heavy and cumbersome. With help, larger root balls can be dug, which will increase the chance your transplanted shrubs--and your back--will survive. One good thing about moving these shallow-rooted plants is that, even with large azaleas, you won't have to dig too deeply.

Remember the following tips when moving your azaleas.

  • The size of the root ball you dig will vary, depending on the size and growing conditions of your plants. Newly planted azaleas (1 to 5 years old) should be easy to dig, while established plants will be more difficult.
  • Dig as big a root ball as possible. A good rule of thumb is that the root ball should be half the diameter of your azalea. For example, if your shrub measures 36 inches in diameter, your root ball should measure 18 inches in diameter.
  • If your shovel blade is dull, use a steel flat file to hone a good cutting edge. Sharp shovels will slice through small roots, making digging easier. A long-bladed nursery spade comes in handy for cutting hard-to-reach roots underneath the shrubs.
  • Once you have dug your azaleas, get them back in the ground as soon as possible, or they will dry out quickly. Water thoroughly after planting.
  • Mulch plants heavily to help hold moisture in and to keep loose soil on and around the root ball from washing away. Azaleas are acid-loving plants, so pine needles, bark, or leaves work well as a mulch because they acidify the soil as they break down.
  • Keep transplants damp the first few weeks, watering every couple of days. Slowly wean them until you're watering only as needed. Plants will tell you when they need water -- they'll wilt.

Planting Azaleas

  • Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball.
  • Mound soil in the hole; set plant on top of the mound, making sure the root ball is 4 inches above the original soil line.
  • Add soil around the plant, packing it lightly. Top with 2 to 3 inches of mulch. Water thoroughly, soaking the root ball and the soil around it.

Digging Azaleas

  • With a round-point shovel, cut a circle around your shrub, digging to a shovel's depth. Don't pry against the root ball with the shovel at this point because you will loosen soil around the root ball, causing it to fall apart.
  • Dig 6 to 8 inches of soil from the sides of the root ball.
  • Cut underneath the azalea with a nursery spade. Do this all the way around the shrub, and then place a shovel under it. Rock the shovel up and down. Loosen the soil underneath the root ball until you can lift it up.
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