7 Deadly Azalea Mistakes You Should Avoid
Bypass these rookie mistakes and grow the South's favorite shrub like a pro.
How to care for azaleas? First recognize that they are to your garden what White Lily and Duke’s are to your pantry—they just belong there. They’re surprisingly easy to grow, given the impressive show they put on each year, and no matter where you live in the South, you can find one that will work in your plant zone.
Here’s a fun little bit of trivia: All azaleas are rhododendrons, but not all rhododendrons are azaleas. Rhododendrons tend to prefer the Upper and Middle South, but there are azaleas out there that can grow in the Tropical plant zone. While you may associate them with early spring, some azaleas bloom in late summer and even fall. Encore azaleas can give you more than one bloom per year.
Azaleas fall into two camps: Natives are indigenous to parts of the U.S. and lose their leaves in winter; exotics are evergreens that come primarily from Japan, and most are hybrids. Surprisingly, per Steve “The Grumpy Gardener” Bender, exotic azaleas are more popular than natives in the South. They’re also easier.
At Southern Living, we have no shortage of azalea wisdom to draw on. (Can you imagine how many times they’ve appeared in our magazine since gracing the very first cover in 1966? The answer is approximately 40 bazillion.) We’ve searched the annals of Southern Living garden coverage and put together the 7 “don’ts” that will help you avoid those "what's wrong with my azaleas" pot holes. Or maybe mole holes.
- Don’t buy heat-lovers if you live where it snows. Choose the right selections for your plant zone and your desired bloom time. You can get ideas and information from your local nursery, by searching azaleas on southernliving.com or southernlivingplants.com, or by picking up a copy of The New Southern Living Garden Book (Time Home Entertainment Inc., 2015), edited by Grumpy, who offers up an exhaustive listing of rhododendrons and azaleas.
- Don’t plant a polka-dot garden—a red one here and a white one there, here a pink, there an orange . . . Opt, instead, for sweeps of a single color. You can have more than one color in your garden—just let birds of a feather flock together for more impact and a better design.
- Don’t plant azaleas in deep shade or scorching sun. They might grow in deep shade, but they won’t bloom. And while some azaleas can take the heat, most prefer filtered shade—picture the soft light beneath tall pines—or partial sun (a half-day, tops).
- Don’t scrimp on the dirt. Azaleas don’t like clay and they don’t like limy, alkaline soil, per the Grumpster. What you’re going for is moist, organically enriched, well-drained soil with a pH of 5.0 to 6.0.
- Don’t send your shrubs to Soggyville. Azaleas like a good drink of water on the regular, but they don’t like wet feet in soggy ground.
- Don’t mulch in the fall or fertilize before the bloom, saith Grumpy. One delays dormancy, which might cause winter damage; the other encourages leafy growth when you don’t want it.
- Don’t wait too late to prune. Do it right after the bloom. For most azaleas, next year’s show will come from flower buds made this year, and if you prune too late, once buds have appeared, well, you’ll be bringing the curtain down prematurely.
Plant azaleas with the top of the root ball just above ground. They can “drink” through their leaves, as well as their roots, so give the leaves a spray while you’re watering the base of your shrub. These plants have shallow roots, so give them a 2-inch layer of mulch for heat protection and moisture retention.
Wondering which azaleas to plant? Here are a few good ones to get you started:
- Dark red-orange ‘Red Fountain’ (North Tilsbury Hybrid; Upper South, Middle South, Lower South)
- Showy pink ‘Pride of Mobile’ (Southern Indica Hybrid; Middle, Lower, Coastal South)
- Delicate pink ‘George Lindley Taber’ (Southern Indica Hybrid; Middle, Lower, Coastal South)
- Deep pink to coral red ‘Amagasa’ (Satsuki Hybrid; Middle South, Lower South, Coastal South)
- White, pink-edged ‘Albert and Elizabeth’ (Belgian Indica Hybrid; Tropical South)