For years Azaleas have had the reputation of being a hard grow plant, and many years ago they probably were. With the abundance of information available to us today allowing us to have access to the latest growing techniques for any plant we want to grow, we tend to forget that our great- grandsparents, and even our grandsparents often had to learn their growing techniques by trial and error, and a lot of plants that had particular soil, light, or food requirements were more often than not, put into the difficult or hard to grow category. That reputation has unfortunately stuck with them over the years.
Azaleas are not hard to grow. As with a lot of other plants there are a few rules that must be followed to create the right growing conditions, but once established azaleas are very easy to look after.
Azaleas come in a wide range of colors, white, pink, red, purple, orange and yellows, as well as many multi-colors. There's single and double flower varieties, there are varieties with tiny insignificant flowers but popular because of their deeply colored leaves. All of them are beautiful plants worthy of a place in any garden, but the single flower varieties are the hardiest and more suited to sunny positions, but they do have a more limited color range than the doubles.
The first thing to do is decide where in your garden you want to grow your azalea plants. If you are planting into the ground, try to find areas on the South and East side of your home, where they will be more protected from very hot sun. When selecting the areas keep in mind that the single flower azaleas are more sun tolerant, but still need to be protected from the very hot sun, and doubles will always need to have moderate shade.
Azaleas will not tolerate alkaline soil and prefer a rich acid soil with a PH level from 5-6. PH test your soil, if you live in an area where the soil is naturally high alkaline, then you may need to consider growing your plants in tubs or pots. PH testers can be purchased from nurseries and hardware stores, they're inexpensive but a valuable tool to have.
Once you've decided where you're going to plant your azaleas, and you know the PH of the soil, the next important step is to dig the area over really well, you need to add plenty of peat moss, leaf mould or other organic matter like well rotted cow manure to increase the soil acidity as well as to increase the moisture holding capacity of the soil.
The roots of azaleas need to be kept cool and moist, but not wet, which means you'll need to ensure that the soil drain in the area you've chosen, is very good. In heavy soil it's a good idea to dig in plenty of Gypsum or a good clay breaker, although a safer alternative is to build raised beds and fill them with a good loam that has the correct PH level.
If you are planting into tubs or containers, most nurseries can supply you with a good draining potting mixture that's been prepared for Azaleas. Because drain is so important it makes sense to check the hole at the bottom of your pots once or twice a year to make sure it is not blocked by roots, insects or other debris. Pots or containers should always be raised off the ground on bricks or feet to ensure all the excess water drains away from the soil.
Once you've prepared the garden areas or pots, it's time to buy your azaleas.
Before purchasing your chosen plants check them closely to make sure they look healthy. Gently tip them out of the pots to make sure that the roots are forming nicely, just because one has strong roots, does not mean they have all. So you need to check them all. Plants are often sold with very few roots, or before the roots have properly established in the pot. Also make sure that the soil your azalea is potted in is moist, not wet, and definitely not dry. Azaleas should never be allowed to dry out.
Although Azaleas do not have many problems with pests and diseases, they can sometimes be attacked by fungal diseases such as Petal Blight, which destroys the blooms.
The symptoms of petal blight are light brown or whitish circular spots on the petals. The spots then spread until they look like watery blotches and the flower starts to collapse. The petals look and feel slimy and ever the injured flowers dry up and cling to the plant, most gardeners just pick off the dead flowers and throw them away, but the problem is easy to control and cure with the use of a systemic fungicide which can help prevent any further infection.
The best way to avoid any problems is to examine any plants you are buying and make sure there are no signs of an infection before you take them home. Garden fungicides are readily available from garden centers. If you are concerned that your plant is suffering from any disease, take a small sample to your nursery person. Most garden center staff will gladly help you.
Azaleas are shallow rooted, so when you're transferring them from the nursery pot to the garden or another container, be sure not to plant them any deer than the pot you purchased them in.
Also when you refill the soil back into the hole and round the root ball, the soil should be pushed down firmly, but not packed down hard, which can restrict air flow around the roots, and makes it harder for any water to penetrate the soil . Another common mistake is to pack the soil into the hole to loosely, what happens then is when the soil begins to settle, the roots of the plants become exposed, allowing them to dry out, and that can result in the premature death of your plant .
The best time to plant azaleas is when they are in flower, this also gives you the opportunity to choose the colors you prefer. If you make it a habit to remove dead flower heads you can keep your plants flowering and looking spectacular for weeks.
Azalea roots need to be protected from the summer heat, and the best way to do this is to cover the soil around them with a thick layer of mulch, and keep them moist. The amount of water needed will depend on the type of soil that they planed into and their exposure to the elements. Azaleas should never be allowed to dry out. Taking precautions and looking after the health of your azalea plants rewards you well. Gardens or tubs with azaleas in full bloom are a sight to behold.