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Azaleas and Rhododendrons
Keeping Azaleas and Rhododendrons Happy

Question. I planted several azaleas about eight years ago; they are large but kind of scraggly, having grown tall instead of becoming round and full. A lady in our community cuts hers back to small stubs every year and the next season they arelarge, full, beautiful bushes. After reading a great deal on this subject 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 I know not to do anything. But when is the best time? And what should I do?  Thanks,
            ---Jennifer in McComb, Mississippi

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

It's never wrong to prune them right after the flowers fade. A month later is still technically okay, but sooner is always better—especially down South, where your heat can come on fast and stress recently pruned plants. No matter where you are, never prune after June or you risk removing the following year's flower buds.

(Note: This advice applies only to the typical early-Spring blooming types, which comprise over 90% of the rhododendron family plants growning American landscapes. Some rare and beautiful varieties grown by enthusiasts 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 do pretty much do anything and the plants still thrive. It is generally not wise for normal people to imitate such behavior. And your gentle winters—much more to these plants' liking than my brutal Pennsylvania ones—may make her technique a bit safer. But I'd still stick with the always-safe advice of removing no more than a quarter of the plant in any one season. In your case, just take it off the top (if disease were an issue, I'd suggest removing some inner branches for better air flow instead); if your plants are eight feet tall, remove no more than the top two feet of growth. Six feet tall, a foot and a half, etc…

Such a pruning will begin to improve their look dramatically without the possibility of you entering the fall with the delightful sight of bare, dead sticks outside your house. Repeat this every season, and in a few years the shape of your plants should be exactly what you 'relooking for. Remember—you've been letting them get leggy for eight years; give yourself at least a few seasons to correct that condition.

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

Question. Over the past years I've had a problem with my azaleas and rhododendrons that the extension service at Penn State has diagnosed as Botryosphaeria.I have a lot of clay in my soil and thought making a raised bed would help. 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 the bottom of a lake. What do you think?
            ---Allen in North Wales, PA

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