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Azalea Growing Tips and Advice

There is a legend—the azalea is hard to grow. Actually, it is a lazy gardener’s dream plant. But it needs an acid soil, organically formed, and a heavy mulch.

Getting started growing Azaleas

Azalea can be grown successfully only by catering to their taste for a humusy soil. Each year thousands of gardeners try to grow them otherwise—with conspicuous failure!

This plant is an evergreen shrub all year, but with the advent of spring it comes into its glory. Suddenly the tip of each branch bursts into bloom until the plant is a veritable bouquet. For sheer beauty few other plants are its equal.

With the opening of the first bud, visitors by the hundreds of thousands flock to Southern gardens to be entranced by this showy flower. Private gardens are opened in almost every city from Virginia to Texas; and world-famous public gardens such as Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, Alabama, and Magnolia Gardens near Charleston, South Carolina, are shown to as many as 40,000 visitors in one day.

Azalea, Gardener’s Dream Plant

Actually, it is the lazy gardener’s dream plant if he will only cooperate with nature. Rarely, if ever, will an insect or disease do serious damage to a vigorous azalea. Most of the plant’s ailments are caused by poor nutrition or an unsuitable location.
Its requirements are simply but rigid: acid soil organically formed, a heavy mulch, constant moisture with good drainage, filtered sunlight, and absolutely no cultivation.

Because of the acid soil required, aluminum sulfate has probably spelled the doom of more azaleas plants than any other single thing. True, this chemical acidifies the soil, but at the same time, it eats up the roots of the plant. For a time—perhaps a year—the azalea will seem to thrive. Then is will die for reasons not apparent to the unknowing gardener.

The acid soil required may be achieved by organic means. Decayed pine needles have an extremely high acidity. Oak leaf mold and the decayed sawdust from oak, cypress or hemlock are also acid. If the soil where the azalea is to be set is alkaline, it should be dug out and replaced by acid soil. This may seem like a lot of trouble, but it will make the care of the plant simpler in later years.

Acid soil may be obtained from pine or other coniferous forests or from the woods where acid loving plant such as mountain laurel and blueberry are growing. Coarse sand and leaf mold mixed in will make a loose, crumbly soil that retains moisture yet gives good drainage. The azalea will thrive in such soil, and after planting, the acidity can be maintained by proper mulching.

Mulching Azaleas is Important

The importance of mulching azaleas cannot be over-emphasized. The roots are extremely shallow—most of them lie within three or four inches of the surface—and they must be kept moist at all times. They must also be protected from the heat of summer, the cold of winter, and must never be disturbed by cultivation. Thus, a mulch of at least four inches is necessary. The mulch will keep down weeds and is the natural home of frogs and lizards which eat any insect enemies of the plant.
Pine needles, oak leaves, and sawdust from oak, cypress, or hemlock make excellent mulches. A mixture of the materials is preferable since the mulch in decaying continually adds food to the soil. The more variety in the mulch, the more variety in the foods!

Many growers find that a combination of pine needles and oak leaves is especially good. The needles keep the leaves from blowing and are high in acidity but slow in decaying. The oak leaves decay more rapidly and, while lower in acidity, are higher in food value. Seaweed added to the mulch from time to time adds trace minerals. Manure is not recommended for azaleas because of its alkaline reaction.

The most common symptom of an ailing azalea plant is chlorosis or a yellowing of the leaves. This is not a disease, but usually means that the soil is not sufficiently acid. It may be prevented by proper planting and mulching. If the condition appears in spite of these precautions, check the water supply. Sometimes the water used contains lime which counteracts the acidity of the mulches.

Other than the food from the decaying mulch, azaleas require only feeding of cottonseed meal once a year to keep them in good condition. This feeding is given immediately after the blooming season and is applied at the rate of about two and a half pounds per hundred square feet. It should be sprinkled over the mulch and watered in. Under no circumstances is it dug into the soil. Those shallow roots again!

If the plant seems lacking in vigor, a second feeding of cottonseed meal may be applied three weeks later, but never after the last of June. Later feedings will encourage new growth that will not be hardened before the heat of summer begins.
Azaleas need some sun to bloom satisfactorily, but the direct rays of the summer sun are usually harmful. The buds for the coming spring form during the summer and fall, and the plants need plenty of moisture during that time. Any baking by the sun will result in a shortage of blossoms. The plants wilt quickly if not kept moist and are slow in recovering vigor after even a single drying out. For this reason, azaleas thrive in the edge of woods where they get filtered sunlight, or in sheltered locations where they receive only partial sun.

They also need some protection from the wind. Wind does not harm the plants, but will damage the blossoms during the blooming season.

Winter hardiness of the azalea varies with the different varieties and with the condition of the individual plant. In general, the Indica varieties are perfectly hardy only in the South, while the Kurumes are grown successfully as far north as Long Island.

Plants grown in dense shade or those which are overfed or fed late do not withstand cold well. All growth should be matured before winter. The plant will survive severe cold if the roots are protected, but the flower crop may be injured by unseasonable cold, especially after the buds are showing color.

Occasionally a hard cold will cause the bark to split. This damage can be repaired by pulling the bark together and wrapping it with tape.

Azaleas are pruned to keep them at the desired size and to make them produce more flowers. Ideally, the plant should be thick headed and well branched since a flower forms at the tip of each branch. Pruning should be done immediately after blooming so that the blossoms can form during the summer.

Breathtaking Effects with Azaleas

The azalea is breathtaking when used in great masses on large estates, but it is equally well suited for small gardens. Is may be used as an accent plant, around pools, in hedges, or as a foundation plant. It is an excellent foundation plant in that it may be pruned to the desired size, is evergreen, and has low-growing branches which tie the house to the ground. Care should be taken that the color of the blossoms does not clash with that of the building, however. That is, do not use magenta azaleas against an orange brick house.

The colors range from white through pink, lavender, salmon, orange and red. In small gardens, a single color is most effective, especially when combined with plants of the same color, which are in bloom at the same time. For instance, try white azaleas under dogwood or pink azaleas near redbud.

The azalea is exacting in its requirements, but once those are met, no other plant is more rewarding. Other than its uses as an outdoor plant, it is a long-lasting cut flower. Furthermore, because of the compact, shallow roots it is easily transplanted. During blooming season the entire plant may be lifted, potted and moved into the house. Then it can be replanted without damage.

You can find more growing tips for Azaleas here and how to grow Azaleas in East Texas here.

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