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 growing azaleas    temperature | sun | soil/water | mulch | fertilizer | pruning | problems
Azaleas can thrive in a wide variety of growing conditions, which makes them useful in many different landscape situations. Many of these conditions are described here.

 temperature
Particular plants grow best within a range of high and low temperatures. These ranges are known and published for many plants, using the U.S. Department of Agriculture cold hardiness zone numbers. Each zone covers a 10 degree Fahrenheit range of average annual minimum temperatures. A simplified zone map shows the zones across the United States, along with the temperature range of each zone. Compare your zone with the cold hardiness of the plants you are interested in to choose plants that will grow well for you.

Cold damage is primarily due to the minimum low temperature to which the plants will be exposed . Other factors include:
  • Water - plants need to go dormant, or harden off, before the winter. To help them harden off, reduce water a month or so before the expected first frost. Then, after a few hard frosts, water them well to provide adequate soil moisture for the warm days that will come, which can dry the plant out even in the winter, particularly when combined with wind and sun exposure.
  • Mulch - avoid mulching heavily in the fall until after the first frost. Since mulch serves as an insulator to slow the loss of heat from the soil, it can lower the air temperature by a few degrees just above the mulch.
  • Age - young plants may be less cold hardy than older plants of the same variety.
  • Health - a plant in poor health will be less cold hardy than a vigorous plant.
  • Timing - a period of warm temperatures followed by a quick freeze is more damaging than a gradual drop to the same low temperature. Thus, an early freeze in the fall or a late freeze in the spring can cause more damage than those same low temperatures in the middle of winter.
  • Duration - extended periods of low temperature may overcome the insulating properties of the soil and cause root damage.
Winter injury can take the form of frozen flower buds, which usually then turn brown. This ican occur with no damage to the plant other than a lack of bloom in the spring. With snow cover, this can appear as little or no bloom above the snow line, with more normal bloom below the snow line.

Injury to the plant itself is called bark split, The outer layer of bark splits away from the stem just above the ground. The damage shows up the following spring, and can kill the plant if the stem is girdled. Plants with bark split have been saved by applying melted paraffin or grafting wax over the split areas.

Roots are much more sensitive to cold than the plant stems or buds. In the ground, the soil insulates the roots against air temperatures below freezing. The roots of potted plants need similar insulation against cold temperatures. This can be provided by a cool greenhouse, a cold frame, or by placing them closely together and covering the pots with a heavy layer of mulch.

Heat damage is less obvious than cold damage. It typically shows up as a plant that simply does not thrive, and instead slowly declines and dies over a period of years. In general, plants begin sustaining damage at 86 degrees F., with the number of days above this threshold having a cumulative effect. Extended periods of such high temperatures appear to be more harmful than the maximum day-time temperatures, as do high night-time temperatures.

The American Horticultural Society developed a heat zone map similar to the USDA cold hardiness map. It maps 12 heat zones to show the cumulative number of days above 86 degrees F. While heat hardiness using these heat zones is beginning to be published for specific plants, just as for cold hardiness zones, the heat zone information is not yet as readily available.

Many deciduous hybrid azaleas appear to be more sensitive to high temperatures than evergreen hybrids. Hybridizers are working to improve the heat tolerance of deciduous hybrids by crossing them with the very heat-tolerant native R. austrinum.

 sun
The ideal exposure for azaleas is the variable shade provided by tall trees moving in the breeze--one minute, the ground beneath is in full sun, and the next minute it is in full shade. You can help achieve this by removing the lower limbs from the existing trees, at least as high up as you can reach with a pole saw.

Azaleas can also adapt to extremes. Many varieties, particularly deciduous azaleas, can handle more sun if they are given enough water. In general, azaleas grown in full sun will have shorter stems, and may have more blooms which will not last as long, and which may fade in a few days. If the leaves show signs of being burned by the sun (round brown spots on the leaf tips and edges) or the blooms fade quickly, move the plant to a little more shade. In full shade, many varieties will grow longer stems as they reach for the light, and they may not produce as many blooms, but the blooms will last longer.

Azalea sun/shade tolerance is affected by your latitude. In the south, fewer azaleas can thrive in full sun than in the north. Similarly, fewer azaleas, and particularly deciduous azaleas, can thrive in full shade in the north than in the south.

 soil and water
Azaleas have shallow roots, and prefer moist, well-drained soil with a pH between 4.5 and 6.0. If in doubt, you can submit soil samples through your County Extension Service to have the pH and nutrient levels tested, usually for little or no cost. The test results will also have information about changing the pH if needed, which will be appropriate for your soil type and climate.

Check how well your soil drains by filling a hole with water. If it is empty in a few hours, it drains well. If not, you have so-called "heavy" soil. In heavy soil, don't plant azaleas into small holes filled with amended soil, since the holes will hold water and be death traps for the plants. Instead, you can build raised beds, or amend a large area, or "plant high", ranging from an inch or so above ground level to planting on top of the ground, and mounding amended soil around the root balls.

Azalea roots need access to both moisture and oxygen. In wet soil, the roots will grow closer to the surface to get oxygen. In dry soil, the roots will go deeper to get moisture. In reasonably well drained soil, the roots of evergreen azaleas tend to stay in a well defined mass of fine feeder roots from the surface down to around 12 inches deep. They seldom extend beyond the width of the plant, and usually stay within a foot or so of the trunk. Roots of deciduous azaleas may range deeper and further from the trunk in their search for water.

Sand and clay are the soil extremes, and neither are suitable for growing azaleas. Sand has large particles with large spaces between them. Gravity quickly drains excess water from it, there is rather little surface area to hold a film of moisture for roots, and there is plenty of space for oxygen. Clay has small particles with a lot of surface area. Gravity takes a long time to drain excess water from clay, there is a lot of surface area to hold moisture, and almost no space for oxygen. The ideal soil, called loam, has a mixture of large and small particles. That mix allows excess water to quickly drain out by gravity, and has a lot of surface area moisture and spaces for oxygen. Sand and clay can be improved by mixing them together, to provide the desirable mix of particle sizes. They can also be amended by adding organic matter and humus (decomposed organic matter), as much as half by volume, to improve their fertility.

About an inch of rainfall each week is ideal for azaleas. Supplemental water may be needed if the rainfall is much less than that, especially if there is no rainfall for extended periods. Especially watch for signs of dryness on recent transplants, on azaleas which have been planted high, and on azaleas which are in full sun or locations exposed to drying winds. Fortunately, drooping leaves show the need for water well before the plant dries out completely, and watering it slowly and deeply usually restores it within hours.

 mulch
Mulch insulates the soil to even out soil temperature extremes (which may undesirably lower the air temperature at the base of plants in the fall). It also helps to keep the root zone moist, reduces water runoff, and reduces weeds. Perhaps even more importantly, decomposing organic mulch adds humus to the soil. Humus improves the ability of the soil to accept and hold water, it helps get oxygen to the azalea roots, it maintains the acidity of the soil, and it supports the very beneficial mycorrhizal fungi that absorb nutrients from the soil and move them into the azalea roots.

The best mulch is naturally decomposing wood and leaf mold from oak or pine woods. Other good materials are leaves, pine needles, wood products such as twigs, wood chips, ground bark, wood shavings, excelsior or sawdust, and shredded crop rubbish such as straw, peanut hulls or corncobs, and well-rotted animal manure (which may have an odor). Other than its appearance, the major factors to look for are the absence of weed seeds, and a mix of different sizes to provide porosity.

Leaves will decompose and become humus in about a year, while other mulches can last several years before they are decomposed. The bacteria and fungi that decompose the mulch use up nitrogen and phosphorus. To maintain the levels of these elements, it is good to add them at the rate of several handfuls of ammonium sulphate or ammonium nitrate and a handful of superphosphate to a bushel of "raw" or fresh mulch. This is more important with sawdust than with other materials, and less fertilizer is needed if the mulch is already somewhat decomposed when applied.

 fertilizer
Established azaleas typically do well without any additional fertilizer if the azaleas are kept well mulched. The humus from the decomposing mulch provides adequate nutrients for the azaleas and promotes the presence of mycorrhizal fungi which bring soil nutrients to the roots. By contrast, applying inorganic fertilizers decreases the presence of mycorrhizae, which increases the need for higher levels of soil nutrients. Thus, using inorganic fertilizers in any significant amounts tends to make the plants dependent upon their continued use. If you do fertilize, it is best to apply it between late fall and early spring when the plants are dormant. Avoid fertilizing after June, to keep from pushing plants into active growth before the winter cold.

Before using fertilizer in your landscape, get your soil tested. The test is usually quite inexpensive, and may be free. Your County Extension Service can probably supply instructions and supplies for the soil test. The results will show the current amount of all the essential nutrients, and will probably give some recommended types and amounts of fertilizer needed for the crop (azaleas) you plan to grow.

You may see localized nutrient deficiencies in particular plants. The most common problem by far is chlorosis, seen as a yellowing between the veins of the leaves while the veins remain green. It is caused by a lack of available iron due to a variety of reasons, including compacted soil, too much water, too much fertilizer, or soil acidity outside of the range needed by azaleas (pH between a low of 4.5 and a high of 6.0, where 7.0 is neutral). While spraying the foliage with chelated iron is a quick fix, that does not solve the underlying problem. If the problem is confined to one plant, try moving it. After digging it up, take a close look at the soil and the roots, and check the soil drainage and general looseness.

To loosen up heavy soil, add as much as 50% by volume of organic material such as composted leaves, fine pine bark, or any of the other products mentioned for use as mulch. If the roots have been damaged by overwatering, poor drainage or overfertilizing, there is no quick fix. About all you can do is trim away the rotted roots, remove the problem by replanting it in well drained soil, and give the plant time to grow some new roots.

To lower the pH (increase the soil acidity), sprinkle several handfuls of ferrous sulphate around the base of the plant. Never use aluminum sulphate, as the aluminum is toxic to azaleas.

To raise the pH (decrease the soil acidity), sprinkle several handfuls of ground dolomitic limestone or oyster shells around the plant. Don't use hydrated lime, which will burn the plant. Wood ashes are good to raise the pH, and add phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients as well. A nitrogen deficiency appears as yellowish leaves, small new leaves, and stunted plant growth. Use a fertilizer which will not reduce the soil acidity, such as ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate, or well rotted manure which has not been treated with lime.

A calcium excess or deficiency appears the same as iron chlorosis to begin with, followed by leaf tip burn and twisted leaf tips. A light application of gypsum, dolomitic limestone or ground oyster shells will correct a deficiency. Gypsum will do that without affecting the soil acidity, while limestone or oyster shells will also raise the pH (less acidity), which may not be desirable.

A potassium deficiency appears the same as iron chlorosis to begin with, followed by leaf tip burn, inward curling of the leaves, and premature leaf drop. Spraying with chelated iron is a quick fix, and sprinkling a small amount of potassium sulphate around the plant will have a longer lasting effect.

A severe phosphorus deficiency produces dull and unusually deep green leaves. They will then turn reddish brown and purplish brown, and eventually fall off. A mild phosphorus deficiency may result in reduced flowering and lighter than normal flower colors. The phosphorus in superphosphate migrates only very slowly in the soil, about one inch per year, so the best way to get it to the roots is to sprinkle a small amount in the bottom of the planting hole, or to mix some with the soil used to backfill the hole. To correct a phosphorus deficiency seen after planting, use diammonium phosphate instead, as its phosphorus migrates more rapidly.

 pruning
To avoid losing next year's blooms, you can prune small branches when the plant is in bloom (and enjoy them inside the house) or soon after.

For major pruning, the best time is in early spring before the plant is ready to put out new growth, so it has the full growing season to fill out and for the new growth to mature. When pruning azaleas to reduce height, particularly older plants, it is best to do the pruning in stages, to minimize the shock to the plant.

Before you start to prune, look at the plant you intend to work on, remembering that the branches which are shaded out often die back and become dead wood anyway. These should be removed first, as the effect of removing them may alter the way you approach pruning the rest of the branches to maintain the shape of the bush.

Older plants may have a number of tall branches which need to be eliminated. Remove two or three of the tallest branches, taking care to cut back to a side branch which is heading in the desired direction. Cut close to a side branch, as stubs tend to die back to the side branch and leave dead wood which may become infected later. If you remove a lot of the branches, it is a good idea to mulch around the plant to make up for the reduced shade on the roots. The new shoots, which will appear when the weather warms up, may come from the stubs and from the base of the plant.

Use clean cutters, and sterilize them as the work progresses, particularly after a cut in infected wood. Denatured alcohol is an effective sterilizing agent, as is rubbing alcohol or household bleach.

Next year take out two or three more branches using the same process, spreading the pruning over a three year cycle. This approach will result in the plant sending out new growth near the base, and lets you manage the shaping of the plant to achieve a nicely shaped bush. It also minimizes the shock to the plant.

 problems
Azaleas are generally healthy plants when their basic cultural requirements are met. However, they are subject to a number of problems caused by infectious agents, insect pests, weather extremes and nutrition deficiencies.

The problems page describes some common problems. It also links to more in-depth descriptions of a few problems, and to a complete list of the problems that can afflict azaleas.

Updated March 13, 2007

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