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March Garden Column by Kim Bius

The Azalea........... Springs Grande Dame
The spring rains and cooler temperatures are just the stage cue local azaleas need to put on their best show. The cooler temperatures will prolong the blooming season and the moist ground makes for the perfect planting season for azaleas. Last summer was especially hard on azaleas. The intense heat and lack of moisture in the soil were the exact opposite of what these beautiful plants require. So often we hear gardeners say, “I can’t grow azaleas, they always die”. There are generally two reasons for this: lack of consistent watering and an ill prepared bed.
Azaleas are the stepsiblings of the cool weather loving, northern rhododendron. Azaleas are actually very easy to grow but their requirements are very specific. They are acid lovers, thus most soils in Walker County are their native habitat. Azaleas love rich, loamy soil and prefer raised beds, especially when poor drainage can become an issue. A perfect bed is raised 4” and contains 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 heavy humus , and 1/3 growers mix or a sandy topsoil ( no clay).
Azaleas will tolerate full west sun exposure to a shady habitat, making them extremely versatile in a
landscape application. Very sunny areas, required additional irrigation and heavy shade areas do not produce blooms.
New plantings will not have an established root system and will require consistent watering at least 3-4 times a week on a 3 gallon size or larger. One gallon azaleas are 1.5 to 2 years younger than 3 gallon size azaleas and will require more care in becoming established. The small root ball on a 1 gallon container can easily dry out within 2 days and show damage on day 5. It is for this reason, 3 gallon + azaleas are generally recommend for planting, unless you are a diligent gardener.
Maintenance is easy. Pruning is done once a year, after the last bloom fades. Trim all top shoots back to the main “ball” generally 2’-3’ shorter than the over- all growth. Do not be afraid to cut them back 50% if they have grown too large for their area. You will see bare stalks for several weeks, but new growth will appear and in 6 weeks, the dramatic pruning will not be visible. Azaleas must be pruned yearly for best appearance. The leggy, scraggly azalea......has been unpruned and is not getting the water it requires to be the beauty it was meant to be.
Azaleas are fertilized 2x a year with azaleas fertilizer. Fertilome makes a great azaleas, gardenia,
camellia fertilizer. It is used once a year after pruning and again in 6 weeks. Do not fertilize prior to or during blooming or azaleas will drop their blooms. Liquid or granular iron is often needed several times a year because our low iron soils are easily depleted of iron in heavy rains. Limey colored leaves with dark green stems are “tell-tale” signs of iron deficiency.
Azaleas do have a few insects/diseases to be on the watch for. Lacebugs are their number one nemesis and can be spotted by mottled leaves that have turned “crispy, white, and devoid of chlorophyll”. Turn the leaf over and you will see 100’s of black and rust colored dots of lacebug poop.
A systemic liquid insecticide followed by a systemic granular are your best line of defense against
repeated infestations. Rust is your next enemy. This fungi effects plants in rainy seasons and is
apparent by the rusty powder on the top side of the leaves. A systemic fungicide will keep this at bay.
At some point an organic will be produced that will keep gardeners from treating every 5 days, but as of yet, it has not been produced.

Azaleas are available in a wide range of varieties, colors and sizes.
The miniatures are the Gumpo’s. These little guys resemble a helleri holly in mounding growth to a
height of 2 1⁄2’ x 2 1⁄2’. They bloom a bit later than the others but will sometimes “throw” a few single
sporadic blooms during the summer and fall months. Gumpos have large blooms of white or medium pink. This series makes a great border for an existing bed or by themselves in areas that cannot have height.
The semi-dwarf’s to dwarfs are a large grouping of azaleas that range in height from 3’ to 5’. Kurume
and various other hybdrids make up the population of this group. The varieties of semi dwarfs are
almost endless but we will touch on the most popular in East Texas.
Red Ruffle – a large pink/red double bloom, that grows on a 3’-5’ plant. These plants are easily pruned after blooming to keep them more compact.
Pink Ruffle- a large baby pink double blooms that grows a bit taller than a red ruffle, if left unpruned.
Fashion – orange/pink bloom, blooms spring and fall. Deep bronze colored leaves in Fall. Grow 4’-3’
Snow – double white, blooms profusely, spring bloom only.
Christmas Cheer – cherry red bloom spring and sporadically at Christmas.
Sunglow – blooms later than others, neon pink blooms into May.
The encore series has many varieties that fit the semi-dwarf category. These azaleas will bloom heavily spring and fall and sporadically throughout the year. The kickback on these is the price. Encore azaleas are patented, so plan on paying double for these varieties that can be easily mixed with your standard azaleas.
The southern indica’s are the largest group of azaleas. These hardy azaleas can easily reach 8’ tall x 6’ wide, if left unpruned. They are at their “prettiest” in full spring bloom and should be pruned (heavily or lightly) after blooming and maintained at the 3’- 4’ range or desired height.
Purple Formosa produces a raspberry/purple bloom and is the true Formosa of the south. Red Formosa produces a ruby/magenta bloom and is easily detectable by its “hairy” leaves.
The pink Formosa produces a fuchsia pink bloom and is known as the Pride of Mobile and the G.G.
Gerbing produces a large white blooms and most susceptible to rust and blight. The George Tabor is pale pink with a purple throat and always a show stopper.
Happy Gardening....Hurray for Spring!

azalea landscape.jpeg
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