The Azalea – Star of the Southern Garden
How to make them shine longer each spring
Photography by Mary Clay
Azaleas are one of the most popular, easy to grow and rewarding plants in the Southern garden. The variety of size, bloom time and color make azaleas a wonderful asset in a garden of any size from a large suburban garden to a small, enclosed courtyard. There are a multitude of azalea varieties ranging from the largest Southern Indicas, which can grow to a width and height of six to 12 feet, to the smallest variety, the Gumpos, which grow to a height of one foot. The colors vary from white, pink, lavender, violet, salmon and orange to a deep red. With proper planning, the spring garden can be filled with beautiful blooming azaleas from late February through the end of May.
Azaleas can be divided into two groups: deciduous and evergreen. In this column I will discuss the evergreen variety, originating in the Orient and first introduced to North America in the early 1800s. The Southern azalea was brought to Charleston in 1848 and made its way to the Midlands shortly thereafter. The Southern Indicas are the larger azaleas that decorate so many of our gardens and that grace the fairways of The Augusta National every year during The Masters Golf Tournament. They put on quite a show in early to mid-April. The most common varieties are:
‘Formosa’ which has a large magenta bloom, ‘George Tabor’ which has an orchid bloom with a lavender center blotch, ‘Mrs. G.G. Gerbing’ which has a white bloom, and ‘Pride of Mobile’ which has a watermelon red blossom. These hybrids are mid season bloomers and work well planted together.
The Karume varieties are lower growing bushes that range from two to four feet. This group includes ‘Coral Bells’ which has a coral pink hose-in-hose bloom (appears as if one flower grew out of another), ‘Hino Crimson’ which has a brilliant red, single bloom and ‘Snow’ which has a pure white hose-in-hose bloom. These Karumes are early season bloomers that herald the arrival of early spring.
The Gumpos are later bloomers and are low growing bushes. These include ‘Pink Gumpo’ that has a light pink single bloom and ‘White Gumpo’ that has a single white blossom. These late bloomers extend the bloom time of the azaleas in the garden. They are also low growing, compact plants, so they make a wonderful border for a bed of the large and medium size varieties.
There are some other outstanding hybrids such as ‘Mary Corcoran’ which has a white blossom touched with pink in the early spring and ‘Pink Cascade,’ a late bloomer, which has a salmon pink flower with a red blotch.
Encore Azaleas are repeat bloomers of mid-size growth. There are more than 20 cultivars with more and more hybrids introduced every year. These azaleas put on a big flush of blooms in the mid spring and then intermittently during the spring and summer and sometimes into fall.
In or Out of Fashion?
Just as ladies’ fashion changes, so do gardening trends. Traditional azaleas have lost their appeal with many gardeners. It could be because of the way they are planted. Azaleas do not make the best foundation plants. They should be allowed to grow in their natural shape and not be pruned into contrived shapes. They do not work well in a foundation bed because the plants grow too tall and block the windows. Azaleas do not look their best if sheared into a ball or square. They do not look good when dotted around the yard and planted as specimens. They should be planted in groups of like varieties and complimentary colors and allowed to grow into their natural form.
The Gumpos can be the most attractive in a foundation bed because they stay small and compact and do not need pruning. The Southern Indicas are quite large shrubs when they mature and do well in a large bed away from the foundation. One way to design the bed is to plant the Indicas in swaths of three or four varieties. Another successful way to plan a successful combination is to plant groups of three to four plants of each variety at the back of the bed. For example, plant three ‘Formosas’ in a group next to three ‘Mrs. G.G. Gerbing’ next to three ‘George Tabors.’ When they bloom in mid spring, they will produce three blocks of color: magenta, white and lavender. In front of those, plant the Karumes in the same block pattern: ‘Coral Bells’ next to ‘Snow’ next to ‘Hino Crimson.’ Putting the white varieties of both types in the middle ties the color blocks together. In front of these add a border of one type of Gumpo, either ‘Pink’ or ‘White.’ The ‘Pink’ can be more pleasing because it ties all of the other colors together.
Sun or Shade? Where to Plant?
Azaleas actually need a little bit of both sun and shade. If they are planted in too much sun, they may suffer from leaf scorch. If they are planted in too much shade, they may not put forth a lot of blooms. This is the Goldilocks theory! Azaleas thrive when planted where they receive morning sun and dappled light through out the day. The summer afternoon sun can be too harsh and cause them to struggle. Azaleas do well planted under the canopy of tall pine trees or the lower canopy of dogwood trees.
What Kind of Soil?
Azaleas do best in moist, well-drained acidic soil with lots of organic matter. They thrive under pine trees because the falling pine needles add acid to the soil as they decompose. Make sure they get plenty of water if planted under trees because they will compete with the trees for moisture, and the trees will usually win. If the leaves begin to yellow, feed them with a slow-release acidic azalea or camellia fertilizer. The best time to apply fertilizer is after they bloom and again in mid-summer. Follow directions for application and be sure to water thoroughly after the treatment. If planted in the proper setting, established azaleas need little care. Prune carefully and they will produce layers and layers of bell-shaped flowers for years to come.
How to Prune
It is best to use hand clippers and loppers to prune azaleas. Make sure the blades are very sharp to make nice clean cuts. Do not use electric shears to prune azaleas. The plants will die out in the middle, and there will only be green leaves at the very tip of the branches. The best time to prune is very soon after blooming. Most azaleas look best and more natural when pruned as little as possible. If long, stray branches appear, reach down into the plant and cut close to a larger, stronger branch. This type of pruning maintains the natural shape and keeps the plant healthy by allowing sunlight to filter through the entire plant and air to circulate through the center of the shrub. Also remove any dead or crossing branches.
If azaleas have been neglected and are too tall and out of shape, rejuvenation pruning may be necessary to bring them back. Do this type of pruning in late February. The plants will not produce blossoms that year but the bushes should respond quickly and bloom the following spring. Mature plants can be cut down to a height of eight to 12 inches. Again, use sharp loppers to do this. Make sure the shrubs are fed a slow release, water-soluble fertilizer and watered evenly and frequently.
Mulching azaleas is one of the most important aspects to successful growth. Pine straw and hard wood mulch add acid to the soil as they disintegrate which helps maintain the acidic soil that azaleas love. The mulch also conserves moisture in the soil and protects the plant from extreme hot or cold temperatures. A depth of two to three inches should be spread around each bush, adding more as it decays. The mulch also aesthetically enhances the bed and adds the finishing touch.
Need more Plants? Learn to Propagate
Azaleas are one of the easiest plants to propagate. All gardeners, amateur or experienced, can propagate their favorite variety by ‘layering.’ Choose a low growing branch, bend it to touch the ground, notch the branch with a sharp knife, cover the notched branch with organic material and a brick or stone on top of that to ensure that it remains in contact with the ground. You may also secure it to the ground by using landscape pins that are used in irrigation. Make sure the branch is kept moist. Leave the branch undisturbed until it develops strong roots. Dig it up as an individual plant and move it to another area in the garden. Before long there will be enough azaleas to create a new bed.
Beautiful Azalea Gardens in South Carolina
Plan to visit one or more of the beautiful azalea gardens in South Carolina this spring to get more ideas of how to incorporate azaleas into the landscape. Magnolia Gardens outside of Charleston is the quintessential azalea garden and is the perfect place to begin the azalea tour. Magnolia Gardens claims to be the first American garden to plant azaleas outside, not just under glass. There are thousands of blooming azaleas decorating Magnolia in the spring. The Southern Indicas are the stars of this garden. Many new varieties are added every year, so it is a great way to learn about the newest hybrids and their preferred habitats.
Closer to home is the W. Gordon Belser Arboretum right here in Columbia at the lower end of Wheat Street. This garden is not a decorative garden but a collection of native plants. There is a nice collection of native azaleas that are in bloom in mid to late spring. There is a map at the entrance that directs the visitor to the azalea collection.
Another way to train your eye is to drive around different neighborhoods in the spring when azaleas are blooming. If you see a display that appeals to your gardening style, snap a photo and incorporate the idea in your own garden. There is nothing more beautiful than Spring Lake Road, off of North Trenholm Road, in the spring when the Yoshino cherries and all of the azaleas are in full bloom.
It is a good idea to buy azaleas when they are in bloom to make sure that the plant tag matches the correct variety. It would be very disappointing to buy three ‘Formosas’ and find out they were really ‘Mrs. G.G.Gerbing’ once they bloomed. The leaves look the same so it can be very confusing.
If your garden is full of healthy azaleas that are not in the location you desire, transplant them. Azaleas are very easy to transplant if done properly. The best time to transplant azaleas is in late fall. By transplanting in the fall, the roots have more time to acclimate to their new surroundings and get a head start on the next growing season. It is a good idea to trim back the branches by one third. The blooms may be sacrificed for the following spring but the chances of successful transplanting are much better. Plus, you can shape the bush if it has gotten out of shape.
Make sure the selected plants get plenty of water for a week or two before they are moved. Before digging up the azalea, dig the hole where it will be moved. Also make sure that the new hole is the same depth as that of the azalea that is going to be transplanted. The new hole should be half again as wide as the root ball. It is also a good idea to put water in the new hole so that bottom roots will get plenty of moisture.
Using a sharp, clean shovel, dig a hole 12 to18 inches around the trunk of the existing azalea. Work the shovel under the roots and apply pressure to the shovel to lift the plant. Do this around the entire plant. Gently lift the plant being careful not to disturb the roots. Set the plant in the new hole at the proper depth and back fill with soil. Water the plant thoroughly to make sure there are no air pockets. Mulch the transplant with pine straw or hard wood mulch. Monitor the rainfall for the next few months and water by hand if necessary.
Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labors
With proper planning, planting and maintenance of your azaleas, you will be rewarded next spring with a garden ablaze with colorful and healthy azaleas. If Easter coincides with the bloom time of the azaleas, the Easter Bunny will have a perfect place to hide his eggs.
Monthly Garden Chores for March
• Nurseries are well stocked in March, so visit as many as you can and pick out some new varieties of trees, shrubs and perennials. March is a perfect time to plant new trees, shrubs and perennials.
• Start zinnia, portulaca, salvia and cleome seeds inside so they are ready to transplant to the garden in May.
• Start basil seeds inside.
• Divide perennials in over crowded clumps and move to other areas.
• Heavy pruning not completed in February can be continued and finished.
• Make sure beds are edged and mulched so they will look neat and tidy when the big bloom of azaleas and flowering trees occurs.
• Now is a good time to rake old mulch away from rose bushes and apply new mulch.
• Any house plants that have been over wintering inside may be taken outside during warm daylight hours.