Azaleas are among the most popular flowering plants. Their abundant, colorful, and long lasting flowers, combined with a compact growth habit and the ability to be planted outdoors, makes them an ideal choice for gift-giving. And with the Mothers Day holiday just passed, thousands of blooming azalea plants were undoubtedly presented to appreciative Moms everywhere. So this month’s newsletter topic is especially timely.
Azalea plants received as gifts may be kept indoors for as long as the flowers are colorful. Place the plants in a location which receives bright but indirect sunlight. Keep the soil evenly moist at all times, but never waterlogged. Azalea plants which are grown in pots are frequently in a root-bound condition, and may need to be watered fairly often. Don’t, however, allow the plants to sit in a water-filled saucer, or the roots may be irreversibly damaged. Azaleas benefit from regular misting with water to increase the humidity around them, and to deter spider mites which can sometimes plague them if the atmosphere is too dry.
Planting Azaleas Outdoors
Once the blooms have faded, caring for azalea plants is easiest if they are planted outdoors. Choose a bright location which is out of direct sunlight. Dig a hole at least twice as wide and deep as the plant’s root ball. Add a generous amount of peat moss to the soil, which will increase the organic content and raise the acidity to a level preferred by azaleas. Refill the hole about two-thirds deep with the amended soil, slightly mounding it at the center. Remove the plant from its pot and gently loosen up the root ball, cutting through it with a knife if necessary, so as to encourage new roots to grow into the surrounding earth. Place the plant on top of the mounded soil in the hole and spread the roots around. Fill in around the plant with the remaining soil mixture, tamping it firmly without compacting it, and water generously to help settle the plant. Remember to water the azalea regularly as it becomes established.
Caring for Outdoor Azaleas
Caring for azalea plants isn’t difficult at all if a few simple cultural requirements are met. Azaleas (botanically, Rhododendron species) are members of broad family of acid-loving plants which includes heathers, laurels, and blueberries. These so-called “Ericaceous” plants (after Erica, the genus name for heather) thrive in moist, organic soils with a relatively low pH level of 4.5 to 5.5, meaning that it is fairly acidic. The azalea plants sold by florists are generally evergreen, and can be safely planted outdoors in areas where the average minimum winter temperature doesn’t fall below 0 to -10 degrees F. In colder climates (north of Zone 6), they are best grown in greenhouses.
Azaleas grow slowly and rarely need pruning. However, to maintain them at a certain size or to increase the density of their growth, azaleas may be pruned immediately after they’ve completed flowering, just as the new growth is being produced. These shrubs bloom each spring on the previous season’s growth, having formed buds by summer’s end, so don’t prune them after early summer lest you sacrifice next year’s flowers.
Properly caring for azalea plants includes regular feeding to promote healthy growth and copious flowers. Choose a fertilizer which has been specially formulated for acid-loving plants, such as camellias, hollies, and rhododendrons, and apply according to the manufacturer’s directions during the growing season. Azaleas can sometimes suffer from a condition known as chlorosis, a mottled yellowing of the leaves with the veins remaining green. This is caused by low acidity or a lack of iron in the soil, and may be remedied by the application of liquified iron.
With just a little tender loving care, your azalea plants will flourish for generations, rewarding you each spring with bouquets of lovely flowers to grace your landscape or garden, and reminding you always of the gifts they represent. Consult your local professional florist and brighten someone’s life with a beautiful blooming azalea.