Azaleas as foundation for spring garden

Ce Cowart Schlicher | WCMGA

Azaleas are often seen as a staple of old East Texas gardens. Many newer gardens don’t consider azaleas in their foundation plantings. Hopefully after reading this, homeowners will reconsider the azalea as one of the building blocks for their yard.

The primary complaint I hear is that azaleas only bloom once a year. While this may be true, the azalea has a lot more to offer as a base plant for your garden.

First, they are one of the few plants that do push out hundreds of blooms, and as early as the first week or so of February. Why is this important? In one word-Bees! Yes, bees. I went out last week when my first azalea bloomed and it was covered in bees. Why I had never noticed before, I don’t know. But bees get hungry in the early spring months, and there are not a lot of flowers around to feed our pollinators. I didn’t interrupt the bees, but they were everywhere on my azalea. And just a note, my azaleas are all (but one) white. So color doesn’t matter. It’s the pollen/nectar that counts for our bees.

Second complaint I usually hear is that they cover the windows or have covered up the doorway. This is a human mistake of taking a 1 gallon plant and putting it 1-3 feet from a home when planting. Always remember what a plant will look like 10 years from now. If it is the Southern Indica variety of azaleas, you need to plant for at least 9 feet in height and almost that same circumference. If you want the lower growing Gumpo variety, these seldom get over 5 feet tall. So read the label when purchasing an azalea and plant accordingly.

Third complaint is that homeowners don’t know when to prune or fertilize azaleas, so they don’t buy them because they think they will require a lot of maintenance. Nothing could be farther from the truth! If the right variety of azalea is planted in the right soil and semi-shady spot, and you make sure it doesn’t go thirsty in its first 3 years in the ground, then they are almost self-managers.

Now back to why I think they should be used as foundation plants besides the three reason I gave above. Here are some of my favorite other reasons: In the Piney Woods of East Texas there are less than a handful of shrubs that thrive in shade or semi-shade. We have a lot of shade in yards here in Walker County. Since different azaleas bloom during different months, you can have blooms from February until early May. Having a shrub that does more than bloom in the shade is a huge plus.

Some azaleas are evergreen, so when you are looking a bare trees in the winter and early spring, your azaleas give your eyes a rest with their soft green foliage amid all the brown and dreary. Along with this evergreen status comes privacy. A great way to block the view of the neighbor (or their view of you) in the dead of winter. Most Indica varieties can be almost 6 feet wide, so planting them on 12 foot centers can offer a pretty ‘fence’ that will also bloom for you in the early spring. Remember, not all azaleas are evergreen, read the label on the plant you want to purchase.

In my yard, I chose a white garden because I have so much shade. I can see those white blooms in the full moon in January-March. But azaleas are traditionally pink, orange and red with all sorts of shades in between. I also chose to put mine about 10 feet from large trees. They serve to break the eye when looking across my yard. They bring the eye down. Then planting traditional mop-head hydrangeas or other spring bloomers in front of them, the azalea becomes the green canvas background for whatever is in front to shine.

I have never, yes-NEVER, fed my azaleas. Ok, not with commercial fertilizer. I’ve chopped up pine needles in my lawn mower and thrown a little compost up under them in the late winter. And once in the 18 years that I’ve lived here, I put pine bark mulch under them in June to keep their roots cool and damp during a drought. Every year I have had top-to-bottom, bell-shaped, beautiful blooms for almost 18 years! Believe me, I’m a lazy (and often exhausted) gardener, so I don’t put things in the ground that require much work.

I have never pruned mine because they have never shown signs of disease. I did make sure that they stayed damp during times of extreme heat and drought. However, if you do prune azaleas, do so immediately after flowering. Blooms are the result of ‘old wood’, so pruning later is not a good idea.

One no-no for azaleas is their address. Never locate them near walnuts, elms or maples or other plants that will compete for the same nutrients. Mine are about 10 feet in front of oak and pine trees. Also, swampy, boggy areas are not recommended. Good drainage is a must for azaleas.

For ideas on types of azaleas for your yard or other shrubs, you can call the Walker County AgriLife Extension Office at 936-435-2426 and ask to speak to a Master Gardener. We are typically “in” on Thursday mornings.

The Walker County Extension Office is also on Facebook. WalkerCoTxAgrilife has been established to provide updates and information to Walker County residents and landowners on a timely basis. The Walker County Master Gardeners are also on Facebook! Check out both of these Facebook pages and hit "like" to join.