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Azaleas and Rhododendrons
Keeping Azaleas and Rhododendrons Happy

Question. I planted several azaleasabout eight years ago; they are large but kind of scraggly, havinggrown tall instead of becoming round and full. A lady in our communitycuts hers back to small stubs every year and the next season they arelarge, full, beautiful bushes. After reading a great deal on thissubject I'm confused as to whether it's a good idea or not. Some say'do', some say 'don't'. Right now the plants are covered in blooms so Iknow not to do anything. But when is the best time? And what should Ido?  Thanks,
            ---Jennifer inMcComb, Mississippi

I'm glad you asked, Jennifer—improper pruning is one of the biggestmistakes people make with azaleas and other rhododendrons (all azaleasare in the rhododendron family, and both types of plants require thesame basic care).

It's never wrong to prune them right after the flowers fade. A monthlater is still technically okay, but sooner is always better—especiallydown South, where your heat can come on fast and stress recently prunedplants. No matter where you are, never prune after June or you riskremoving the following year's flower buds.

(Note: This advice applies only to the typical early-Spring bloomingtypes, which comprise over 90% of the rhododendron family plants grownin American landscapes. Some rare and beautiful varieties grown byenthusiasts and botanic gardens can bloom very late in the season.Consult an expert if you have a non-typical azalea or rhododendron.(Heck—if you have one, you probably ARE an expert…)

Now, your neighbor sounds like one of those 'green thumbs' who can dopretty much do anything and the plants still thrive. It is generallynot wise for normal people to imitate such behavior. And your gentlewinters—much more to these plants' liking than my brutal Pennsylvaniaones—may make her technique a bit safer. But I'd still stick with thealways-safe advice of removing no more than a quarter of the plant inany one season. In your case, just take it off the top (if disease werean issue, I'd suggest removing some inner branches for better airflowinstead); if your plants are eight feet tall, remove no more than thetop two feet of growth. Six feet tall, a foot and a half, etc…

Such a pruning will begin to improve their look dramatically withoutthe possibility of you entering the fall with the delightful sight ofbare, dead sticks outside your house. Repeat this every season, and ina few years the shape of your plants should be exactly what you'relooking for. Remember—you've been letting them get leggy for eightyears; give yourself at least a few seasons to correct that condition.

After pruning, feed and mulch as I describe below and keep them wellwatered; these thirsty plants should be the first ones in ourlandscapes to see the hose during dry times.     

Question. Over the past years I've hada problem with my azaleas and rhododendrons that the extension serviceat Penn State has diagnosed as Botryosphaeria.I have a lot of clay in my soil and thought making a raised bed wouldhelp. A friend who owns a small nursery has offered me a mix that is50% three-year-old, ground-up decayed leaves and 50% soil from thebottom of a lake. What do you think?
            ---Allen inNorth Wales, PA

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You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2006Mike McGrath