Azaleas: Coddling These Finicky Southern Belles

With the right care, this gorgeous shrub can thrive.
Finicky Azaleas

Finicky Azaleas

Photo by: Image courtesy of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Image courtesy of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Azaleas are finicky, but well worth the effort.

Those idyllic scenes at the Masters Golf Tournament each spring in Augusta, Georgia, paint quite the springtime picture. That’s because all the iconic red, pink, orange and white azaleas are in their full glory.

In the South, azaleas are so common we often take them for granted. But if you’ve ever grown them you know they’re not always the piece of cake they seem to be. 

Azaleas, members of the rhododendron family, fall into two main categories – native and Asian. The native, or “wild,” azaleas are deciduous, and their fragrance alone is reason enough to grow them. The Asian, or exotic, azaleas are evergreens and for the most part have lost their fragrance as they’ve been bred to produce a multitude of hybrids valued for their bold colors. Both types bloom from early spring to midsummer, though there’s a repeat-blooming kind, such as the Encore series, that flower both in spring and again in fall.

All azaleas, which are slow growers, love cool, partial shade, such as the filtered light of tall pine trees, and acid, well-drained soils. Have your soil tested before planting to determine its pH and adjust accordingly. The results will also indicate any fertilizer needs. Because they’re shallow rooted, azaleas can’t handle excessive soil moisture; yet, they demand lots of water because none are drought tolerant. For that reason, surround the shrubs with a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch to retain soil moisture. The key is deep waterings and good drainage.

Azaleas need only be pruned for reducing their size or removing a dead branch – and then only by selective thinning. Remember: These shrubs bloom on old wood, so any pruning should be done immediately after flowering in late spring so that you don’t remove buds being formed for next year’s flowers!

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