With their striking colors — pink, yellow, white, red, purple — and fantastical blooms, azaleas are not shrubs to shrug at. This native plant brings Southern charm wherever it grows, and is a favorite of master gardeners, who admire its beauty and unfussiness. But even novices can bring the blooms to their garden if they know where to start. “They’re an all-around great shrub, and relatively low maintenance,” says Hanna Smith, an Urban Horticulture Extension Agent (and azalea fan) in Guilford County. Lucky for us, Smith has a few tips for successfully growing beautiful azaleas.
1. Choose for size and space.
Color and growing season are important, but azaleas need to be selected for the right size so that they fit their new homes. Picking a gorgeous shrub that will outgrow its location and trying to prune it down later can be difficult and troublesome.
2. No full sun.
Most azalea varieties thrive in partial shade; too much sunlight will discolor the plants. Also, lace bugs attack in full sun.
3. Pine is fine.
“Plant them under pine trees because of the dappled sunlight underneath the evergreen trees,” Smith says. Additionally, fallen pine needles enrich the soil, adding to its acidity.
4. Acidic soil reigns.
North Carolina’s red-clay soil tends to be acidic, which works well for azaleas. The ideal pH for azaleas is 5.5, and, usually, very little adjustment to the soil pH is needed.
5. Fertilize it.
Smith recommends applying a balanced, slow-release azalea fertilizer in split applications — but don’t go overboard.
6. Water, but not too much.
The name “azalea” comes from the Greek word azaleos, which means “dry,” so keep that hint in mind when you plant. Azaleas have shallow roots, which will rot if they stay wet. “Azaleas are picky about having wet feet, so they need to be well drained,” Smith says. The trick is to water deeply and infrequently. Uniform watering is critical.
7. Use mulch.
Two to four inches of organic mulch will help balance the moisture of the soil while providing nutrients to the plants.
8. Prune less.
“Azaleas don’t need a lot of pruning,” Smith says. Cut them back with hand clippers or loppers soon after the flowers fade. Do not use electric shears. A more natural shape will be easier to maintain and match the shrubs’ cloud-like splendor.
Have more questions? Contact the NC Cooperative Extension of Guilford County:
(336) 641-2400 or guilford.ces.ncsu.edu