In the Garden:
Azaleas dominate the spring landscape when in bloom. No flower or bulb can have such a dramatic effect.
My Old Friend Azalea
For not being natives of the South, azaleas learned quickly how to please southerners. They grow with a minimum of problems for at least 20 years and bloom wildly enough to bring people from all over the country to see them. The Formosa type azaleas remain a classic and a sentimental favorite. Three generations of my family have snapped off the fat flower clusters as a token for their mother's affection. But I like the newer reblooming azaleas, too, from the little-leaved, salmon 'Fashion' azalea to the dramatically dark-leaved Encore series.
Azaleas like acidic soil that is rich in organic matter. Don't add lime. When possible, dig or till a bed rather than planting in single holes. Azaleas are shallow-rooted and the plants will spread if given the space and the right soil conditions. Keep new plantings moist, mulched with pinestraw or ground bark, and fertilized with an acid-loving formula after flowering and again in July.
Some people shear azaleas every year the week after they bloom, into cubes or balls or other rigid shapes. When plants are pruned after flowering, the flower buds can still set, and the shrubs appear in the sheared shape the next spring. But this type of rigid shearing has its limitations. After a few years, a glance behind the outer leaves of the shrub reveals no leaves inside the sheared shape.
I like to keep a more natural shape, for a longer-lived shrub. I simply trim each cane as needed right after flowering to maintain a loose oval.
Pruning Big Azaleas
If you don't regularly prune, branches can grow as large as a shovel handle over time. They will bloom, but their canopy may shade the branches below. The solution is to prune out branches when they are as big around as your thumb. The branches below will continue to mature and keep the flowers coming. To rejuvenate an old azalea is not a pretty sight, but once the huge canes are cut down, new ones will take their place in a few months.
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