Azalea Mistakes Every Southern Gardener Should Avoid
When it comes to azaleas, more is always better. We like our yards covered in them, and we're always looking for ways to keep the shrubs happy, healthy, and blooming. How to care for azaleas? First, every gardener must recognize that azaleas are to the 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. Read on for a primer, plus the major mistakes every aspiring azalea gardener should seek to avoid.
Here's a 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, there is much more variety to be found in their bloom times: Some azaleas bloom in late summer and into fall, while Encore azaleas can bloom out more than once each year.
Azaleas fall into two camps: Native azaleas are indigenous to parts of the U.S. and lose their leaves in winter, while exotic azalea species are evergreens that come primarily from Europe and Asia, 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 to grow. On the whole, azaleas are low-maintenance and can be counted on to be more resistant to pests than other popular shrubs.
If you're new to planting azaleas, read up on our Complete Guide to Azaleas to ensure that you're giving your plants the best start possible. A few tips: You should plant azaleas with the top of the root ball just above ground. They can "drink" through their leaves, as well as their roots, so be sure to 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.
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 too many to count.) We've searched the annals of Southern Living garden coverage and put together the top 7 don'ts when caring for azaleas.
Don't buy heat-lovers if you live where it snows.
Knowing what to plant is as important as knowing where to plant it. 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, edited by Grumpy, who offers up an exhaustive listing of rhododendrons and azaleas. Choose well, and they'll reward you will blooms for years and years.
Don't plant azaleas in deep shade or scorching sun.
While azaleas are relatively easy to care for, they do have preferences. They might grow in deep shade, but they won't bloom profusely (or at all). 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). Aim for that filtered shade (or part sun and part shade) for healthy plants. Too much sun will shorten bloom time and make for more compact shrubs; it may also encourage plants to fall prey to predatory bugs.
Don't scrimp on the dirt.
Azaleas don't like clay and they don't like limy, alkaline soil, per the Grumpster. When it comes to the earth that you're planting in, what you're going for is moist, organically enriched, well-drained soil with a pH of 5.0 to 6.0. Hit this sweet spot, and you'll be setting up your azaleas for a long life in a rich environment.
Don't send your shrubs to Soggyville.
Tending healthy azaleas means being responsible with the watering hose. Azaleas like a good drink of water on the regular, but they don't like wet feet in soggy ground. Try not to overwater, but keep an eye on the plants (and the weather) to ensure they're getting enough H2O .
Don't mulch in the fall or fertilize before the bloom.
One delays dormancy, which might cause winter damage; the other encourages leafy growth when you don't want it. Grumpy encourages mulching and fertilizing in spring after the blooms disappear. (He opts for a controlled-release, acid-forming fertilizer.)
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, i.e. once the buds have appeared, well, you'll be bringing the curtain down prematurely. Deciduous azaleas should be pruned while dormant, while evergreen azaleas can be tip-pinched after flowering ends and into the summer to keep them shaped and compact.
Don't plant a polka-dot garden.
While it can be nice to plant a red azalea here and a white one there, a pink one here and there an orange, if you want to make the most of your plantings, you should opt for a big sweep of a single hue. Doing this will draw the eye in and create impact and drama. It will form a focal point of contrasting color in the midst of a green garden (and who doesn't love that?).
Once you've read up on planting azaleas and how to keep them healthy, you're probably ready to get into the garden and get your hands dirty. 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).
Choose your azaleas, and get growing. They're a fantastic beginner shrub for Southern gardens, and once they start blooming, you'll understand why they've been the region's favorite flowering plant for ages.