A Little Shade Helps Azaleas Add a Burst of Springtime Color
Q: We moved from South Florida to Tallahassee a few months ago, and I was delighted to learn we can grow azaleas now. Do you have any suggestions for getting started?
A: First of all, welcome to Tallahassee! It’s a great place to live and a really great place to garden year-round. Having lived in South Florida for a few years in the 1980s, I recall that gardening pretty much ceased in the summer. And although there were delightful new shrubs and flowers to grow and learn about, many plants I loved, including azaleas, simply weren’t adapted to the warm winters of South Florida. Our North Florida winters tend to be mild, but we have just enough chilly weather for azaleas, which need four to eight weeks of temperatures below 50 degrees F. This chilling period usually falls between late December and late February for us, followed by the bloom season from late February through early April, depending on the azalea type and hybrid.
Azaleas are members of the Rhododendron genus, and there are two types found in our area: the imported Asian azalea, an evergreen shrub that is covered in blossoms in spring and what many people think of when they hear the word “azalea;” and the native azalea, which isn’t as showy when it blooms but has its own charms nonetheless. Almost all native azaleas are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in winter. The form of native azaleas is more open and their flowers usually are fragrant. It’s a great shrub to plant if you want to stick to just native plants, but native azaleas add charm and perfume to any garden. And, they can handle more sun than their evergreen cousins. I encourage you to consider including a native azalea in your landscape, but your inquiry leads me to believe that your primary interest lies in the bold, beautiful spring explosion of color that evergreen azaleas create.
Historically, evergreen azaleas were popular as foundation plants or as a mass planting to draw the eye to the back or edge of a property. One of the iconic images of azaleas can be seen each year at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the annual Masters Tournament. Another was in the promotional material for Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, where lush grass marched right up to a bank of azaleas, and a Southern Belle in hoop-skirt frock with matching parasol patiently waited to smile with you for a souvenir photograph. LEGOLAND sits on the property now but the azaleas are still there, incorporated into the theme park’s botanical gardens.
Azaleas come in a variety of flower colors and plant sizes, so decide what you want to do with your azaleas before you make your selection. Some of the traditional favorites, including George Taber (pale pink with red blotches), Formosa (fuchsia) and Mrs. G.G. Gerbing (white), can get 8 feet tall, so you wouldn’t want them as foundation plantings under your front windows — unless you want to spend every spring pruning them back and keeping their size in check. You’re much better off taking the mature size into account and planting accordingly. There are mid-size azaleas that can get up to 5 or 6 feet tall, and small azaleas that grow only to a height of 2 to 4 feet. These shorter varieties include the Ruffles azaleas, Red Ruffles and Pink Ruffles, and Vivid, with red blooms.
Get a soil test done before you plant, because azaleas need well-drained, acidic soil with a pH of 4.5 to 6.0. With a pH that’s any higher, the shrub can’t absorb the iron and other micronutrients that are needed to stay healthy, and the leaves will turn yellow. Some people add sulfur to lower the pH, but too much of it can damage the root system. Pick the right place for the plant, and you’ll save yourself time, money and work. You can get a soil-test kit at the Leon County Extension Service. Azaleas are not salt-tolerant, so they’re not a good choice for coastal landscapes.
Azaleas need dappled or filtered shade, particularly in the heat of the late afternoon. Too much shade will limit flowering. Tall pines provide good light for azaleas. Plant at the same level the shrub sat in the pot, or slightly higher, and make sure you loosen the root ball before you put it into the planting hole. Keep it well watered the first few weeks as it gets established. Azaleas’ root systems are shallow, so protect them with a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch — but keep the mulch a couple of inches back from the trunk.
You’ll need to fertilize and prune it to get that full, round shape. Prune lightly after flowering, taking each branch back to the larger one below it. Don’t prune after Fourth of July, because the flower buds are forming, even though you can’t see them.
A word of caution: Invasive vines — including Smilax, aka cat briar; poison ivy; and dewberries, aka wild blackberry — will find an azalea and intertwine with the branches seemingly overnight. Keep an eye out for them, and try to dig them out as soon as you see them. Be careful, because the dewberries and the Smilax have vicious thorns and the poison ivy can create a nasty rash. If you opt for using a herbicide to remove the vines, make sure you use a sponge or other hand applicator instead of spraying it, because it’s all too easy to kill the azalea and be left with vine.
©2014 PostScript Publishing, all rights reserved. Audrey Post is a certified Advanced Master Gardener volunteer with the University of Florida/IFAS Extension in Leon County. Email her at Questions@MsGrowItAll.com or visit her website at www.msgrowitall.com. Ms. Grow-It-All® is a registered trademark of PostScript Publishing.