Now is the time to plant azaleas
Now is the best time to plant azaleas. The plants can take full advantage of cooler soil and frequent rains to grow strong roots, full buds, and healthy leaves. Choose azaleas with buds at the ends of the branches and healthy green leaves. Our local nurseries and garden centers can guide you through their selections. Here is how to make the most of fall planting.
Location. Before you buy your plants, walk around and assess your garden. Is there an area that gets at least six hours of sun (from the east or south) a day, or is it located under trees with high canopies? Azaleas need partial shade and no full western exposure.
Soil Tips. Can you stick your shovel—better yet, your fingers—into the soil easily? Azalea roots grow in the top 4-6 inches of soil rich in organic matter—that is, pine straw, oak leaves, or compost that has broken down to make a crumbly mix of small particles, larger than sand. If your soil is rock hard, you will need to dig in compost or build a raised bed. Test your soil to make sure it is acidic (pH of 5.0 to 6.5).
Watering. Can you water the area the first spring and summer? Azaleas cannot stand “wet feet,” so plant them “high” to make sure the water drains away from the central trunk. At the Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden we planted on little “volcano hills” of half sand and half composted finely ground pine bark, spread the azalea roots over the hill, mulched the hill with more compost, and then placed a ring of pine straw around the hill. This automatically raised the plants above the ground level, making sure water did not stand around the azalea stem—which can cause fungus or root rot. Water deeply at least once a week May through October that first year.
Plant Spacing. This depends on the ultimate size of the azalea. Southern favorites like pink-lavender ‘George Lindley Tabor’, sparkling white ‘Mrs. G. G. Gerbing’, or bright pink ‘Formosa’ can take some sun and have big flowers on big (6’ tall by 6’ wide) shrubs. The optimum spacing for them is 5 feet apart. ‘Coral Bells’, a popular pink azalea, grows to 4 feet tall. For a pruned hedge, space these as close as 2 feet apart; otherwise, plant 3-4 feet apart. Deciduous azaleas get very tall—up to 12 feet—and can be 6-8 feet wide. Plant these behind low evergreens to hide their bare branches in winter.
Mulching. To reduce heat-stress the first summer, mulch right after the spring bloom and again in September. Pine needle straw is great, since it is slightly acidic, and compost is good, but avoid hardwood chips.
Pruning. Azaleas set buds in the summer for next year, so trim branches right after bloom is over, never in the fall.
Azaleas are some of the most beautiful and long-lived flowering shrubs we have. Beat the heat by planting them this fall to enjoy for years to come.
Barbara Stump is research associate for development of the SFA Mast Arboretum Garden and the project coordinator for the Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden, which sponsors two 2009 Nacogdoches Azalea Trail events–Azalea Symposium “Azaleas and More” (March 21) and Little Princess Tea Party (March 28). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit www.nacogdochesazaleas.com for more information.
Photo of Ruby Mize Azalea Garden in Nacogdoches by Bruce R. Partain.