How To Plant Azalea Bushes For Maximum Impact

Azaleas are a wonderful addition to any garden. Learn how to plant—or transplant—azaleas in your yard with our step-by-step directions and expert advice.

pink azalea bush
Photo: Julie Eggers/Getty

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. Planting azaleas of different color blooms will lead to a polka dot effect that isn't very harmonious.

So whether you're starting with a blank slate or have a cacophony of color that needs an update, read on for instructions on how to plant or transplant azaleas.

How to Choose Your Azaleas

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 while flowering, 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. (You'll find our directions for that below.)

Make sure color isn't your only consideration when picking plants. There are hundreds of varieties of azalea so pick one that not only has blooms in the color you want but is also the right size for your space and will work in your climate zone.

How to Plant Azaleas

Azaleas are generally hardy plants, but like any plant, they have specific light, soil and water needs. Before planting, make sure the spot you've picked gets the right sun for your specific variety of azalea. Most like dappled sun but there are a few hybrids bred to tolerate sunnier conditions. Set your new plant up for success by following these instructions for planting an azalea bush.

  1. Dig a hole as deep as the azalea's root ball and twice as wide. Azalea's like well-drained acidic soil so add any amendments necessary to get the right pH balance.
  2. If planting an azalea that has been in a pot, rough up the root ball some so roots will be able to spread well once in the ground.
  3. Set the plant in the hole, making sure the root ball is 4 inches above the original soil line.
  4. Add soil around the plant, packing it lightly. Make sure the top of the root ball isn't covered.
  5. Top the area with 2 to 3 inches of mulch 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.
  6. Water thoroughly, soaking the root ball and the soil around it. 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.

How to Dig Up & Relocate Azaleas

If you do end up needing to relocate an azalea—either because the color doesn't work with nearby plants or it's simply not the right fit for the location—it's a pretty simple project. Here's how to do it without damaging your azalea's roots.

  1. 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.
  2. Dig away 6 to 8 inches of soil from the sides of the root ball.
  3. Cut underneath the azalea with a nursery spade. Azaleas are relatively shallow-rooted plants so even with large azaleas, you won't have to dig too deeply. Cut 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. Remember to enlist some help if the root ball is large. Your back will thank you.
  4. Place the azalea on a cloth tarp or length of burlap that can be wrapped around the roots to protect them during transport and keep the root ball intact.
  5. Follow the steps above for replanting the azalea in a better spot in your yard. Keep the root ball moist and out of direct sun until transplanted.

Tips for Digging Up Azaleas

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

When to Plant an Azalea

Spring and fall, when temperatures are cool, are excellent times to plant azaleas. But if you buy in spring when the azaleas are blooming, you'll be assured of getting the colors you want. Summer planting is okay, but you'll have to water frequently during hot weather.

And, don't forget to do your planting and transplanting early in the day or later in the evening, not midday when temperatures are at their peak. It's crucial that your azalea's roots don't dry out during the planting process and hot temps make keeping roots cool and moist a lot more challenging.

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