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Azalea Management 101

Time your pruning for both desirable growth and flowers

While azaleas were blooming mid-month, I passed a home in the Deale area where the bushes were so large that it must have been impossible to look out through the lower part of the front windows. They must have been sheared at some point because the middle of the plants appeared very bushy.
    This is a common problem and one that is simple to correct — once you get out the pruners and get past fear. 
    Well-established azaleas are almost impossible to kill. Their only sure death is by over-mulching or repeated mulching with hardwood bark. The plants are very shallow-rooted; over-mulching them suffocates the roots. Repeated applications of hardwood bark lowers the acidity of the soil and releases high levels of manganese, which prevents iron from being absorbed by the roots.
    If azaleas are well established and growing too well, simply prune them back 12 to 18 inches below the windowsill now, as the flowers are wilting. The sooner you prune the better. Stems up to three-quarters-inch in diameter will sprout new branches by the hundreds. Do not prune all of the stems at the same height. Cut some stems back 12 inches, others 18 and others 24 to give the plant a more natural appearance.
    Within three weeks after pruning, you will see small green dots emerging from the bark. Each of those is a potential branch. If you allow all the green dots to develop, you will get too many branches, giving the plant a bottle brush appearance. To avoid this, in mid-June or early July, use your fingers to rub away half of the developing nubs. These newly emerging branches are soft, succulent and easily removed. In mid-August repeat the process, this time keeping the best-developed and strongest branches and removing the others.  
    Do not fertilize or mulch the plants with compost until after vigorous growth appears on the pruned stems. Keep them thoroughly irrigated during dry periods.
    Since azaleas initiate flower buds beginning in mid- to late September, avoid shearing the plants after the middle of August. Flower buds are initiated at the ends of newly developed branches. If you delay shearing until mid- to late September, you will be eliminating most of the new growth, and the plants will have no flowers next spring.