Garden Notebook: Tending Azaleas

Spring has sprung—and it’s blazing

Photograph courtesy of Atlanta History Center

Azaleas in full bloom are the beauty queens of spring. Their gorgeous curves, adorned in pastel lace, are the belles of Atlanta neighborhoods.

But past their blooming prime, azaleas are like pageant floats after a thunderstorm: washed out, bedraggled, and ready for maintenance before next year’s event. Neglect them, and overgrown shrubs morph into shapeless mounds. Pruned into symmetrical squares and pompoms, they look like boxwood wannabes. “My personal favorite is the upside-down gumball-shaped shearing with a flat top,” muses Jamie Blackburn, curator of Woodland Gardens for the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Fortunately, keeping azaleas healthy and lush isn’t difficult, which is why experts sometimes call them the “lazy gardener’s dream plant.” Acid soil–loving azaleas have shallow roots that lie almost aboveground. Here are some tips on their care:

Mulch, mulch, mulch. Keep two to three inches of old leaf mold or decayed pine needles at the base. Shredded pine bark or pine nuggets also work well.

Go light on fertilizer. Skip fertilizer the first year, then apply acid-plant fertilizer sparingly every year or so in growing season.

Dappled shade is ideal. Both harsh sun and dense shade can damage buds.

Not near the house. Foundations can leach compounds harmful to azaleas.

Prune after bloom. Prune new growth lightly as soon as blooms fade. Prune too late, and you’ll cut off next year’s buds.

Go with the flow. Thin old wood first, beginning with lower branches, and follow the natural flowing shape. Don’t snip straight across.

Shallow roots make azaleas easy to move. 
If yours are ailing, try another location.

Where to see them
Atlanta Botanical Garden,

The Frank A. Smith Rhododendron Garden at the Atlanta History Center,

Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain,

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.