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Into the Garden: Mastering the care of azaleas

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Seeing all of those beautiful azaleas along the golf course at The Masters over Easter weekend made me take a closer look at the flowering shrubs in my yard. We planted many azaleas when we first started gardening, and we're down to two survivors -- one hot pink and one white.

The Azalea Society of America calls the popular shrub "the royalty of the garden." They are in the genus Rhododendron, which makes them popular here in West Virginia. The best-known azalea reference book is "Azaleas" by Fred Galle, published by Timber Press.

The Society lists the most common causes of death of an azalea as improper planting, root problems due to poor drainage or too much watering, overfertilizing or bark split due to colder weather or bigger temperature swings than the plant could withstand. Bloom is affected by many factors, including heredity -- some varieties bloom more than others.

According to the blog from Bob's Market in Mason County, azaleas can be a bit tricky to grow.

"I know I have received my fair share of azalea-related questions during my years here at Bob's," market technologist John Morgan wrote recently. "This week I turned to the United States National Arboretum website where they have a definitive guide to all things azalea."

Here's the information from www.usna.usda.gov about this beloved flowering plant:

"If you plant azaleas in late spring, it is very important to give them some extra water while they are growing new roots. Never let the soil completely dry out; it's best to keep the soil evenly moist. Too much water or poorly drained soil might be another explanation of sudden azalea death.

"Azaleas have very fine, fibrous roots that are easily damaged by waterlogging, even for short periods of time. Before you plant your azalea, dig a hole and fill it with water. If the water has not drained out of the hole within one hour, the soil is poorly drained and you must correct the drainage problem before planting. Install a perforated pipe or drain tile in the garden, making sure that the outlet is lower than the bottom of the planting hole, or build raised beds.

"Plant your azalea in early spring or early fall. If your soil is loose, well drained, and has lots of organic matter, planting will be easy. If drainage is poor, you'll need to correct the drainage problem or plant in raised beds. You can work in some well-rotted leaf mold or compost if the soil is short of organic matter.

"Don't worry about preparing the soil deeply since azalea roots are shallow and most are found in the top foot of soil. Instead, loosen the soil in a broad area around the planting site. If a soil test reveals that your soil is strongly alkaline, work in enough iron sulfate or ammonium sulfate to drop the pH to 4.5 to 5.5; your state's soil testing lab can give you guidance on how much of these materials are needed to acidify your soil.

"Water the pot thoroughly before planting and tease the soil away from the roots on the outside of the pot. Don't worry about injuring the roots; it's more important to remove a significant amount of the potting soil than it is to keep every root intact. Plant the azalea slightly higher than the surrounding soil since it will probably settle after planting. Finally, water the whole area thoroughly and apply a thin layer of shredded leaves, pine needles or pine bark to keep the soil cool and moist. Water your newly planted azalea weekly if the weather is dry, at least for the first year.

"Prune azaleas just after they have finished flowering. Remove individual branches back to the spot where they join a larger branch. New flower buds for next spring's bloom are set by midsummer, and any pruning after mid-June could result in diminished flower production next year. Avoid shearing azaleas since it results in a proliferation of unhealthy, twiggy growth.

"Check azaleas for wilting or dead branches in late summer that may be the result of fungal cankers. These branches should be pruned back to clean white wood that is not infected while the weather is dry to prevent the spread of diseases. Old azaleas that have grown too large for their space in your garden can be brought down in size by cutting the large branches back severely. New growth will spring from the stubs that are left."

What to do now

In the upcoming weeks in the garden, there are lots of tasks that can be done. While Mother's Day typically has been the gold standard as to when to plant delicate perennials, this mild winter/early spring means you may be safe from frost earlier that that first Sunday in May.

After the blooms are spent, prune azaleas, viburnum, forsythia and lilac.

Also, be sure to check out http://anr.ext.wvu.edu/lawn_garden/lawn for great tips for a lush lawn this summer! There are tips about lawnmower safety, liming the lawn, avoiding lawn problems, mulching mowers and establishing turfgrass.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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