Caring for Azaleas

By Paul James

The azalea show this spring has been nothing short of spectacular, thanks to near-perfect weather conditions. But as the flowers begin to fade, it’s time to take care of the plants’ nutrient needs, as well as things such as pruning, watering, and monitoring the plants for signs of insect invasion.

And by the way, the following suggestions apply both to traditional and to repeat-blooming azaleas. In other words, treat the latter as if they were the former.

Fertilizing and Pruning

Blooming zaps a lot of energy out of a plant, and azaleas are no exception. That’s why it’s best to fertilize them after they bloom. Products that combine essential nutrients with soil acidifiers to lower the pH are ideal, and one of the best is Espoma Holly-Tone. A dose of iron is a good idea too, especially if you notice the leaves turning yellow.

You should also prune right after flowering in spring, although the fact is azaleas rarely need pruning beyond removing deadwood and crossing branches.

Pest Problems

Shortly after the bloom period, be on the lookout for lace bugs, little critters that hide under the leaves. They can be a major pest, but thankfully they’re also fairly easy to control.

Lace bugs overwinter as eggs. Adult females insert their eggs into the leaf tissue and then cover them a dark splotch of a varnish-like material that seals the egg into the leaf. This, along with their shiny black droppings gives the underside of the leaves a “fly-specked” appearance. There can be more than one generation a year in Oklahoma.

To control lace bugs, thoroughly spray leaf surfaces (upper and especially lower) with insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, Neem, or a product that contains Spinosad, such as Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew. All are all-natural products, but they should be sprayed after sunset to avoid harming honeybees and other beneficial insects.

Mites

Spider mites are not insects, but are more closely related to spiders. They’re typically found on the underside of leaves as well. The most common type in this area is the red spider mite, and like the lace bugs, spider mites suck plant sap and cause the leaves to change color from bright to dull green, and with a heavy infestation, leaves may turn gray-green or bronze-green. Leaves may also be covered with webbing. Control them using the same products recommended for lace bugs.

Mulch

Because they are shallow rooted, azaleas benefit greatly from a thick layer of mulch, whether chipped or shredded wood products, or pine straw. Maintain a two- to four-inch layer. Replenish each spring and fall.

Water

One inch of water per week should be enough to keep azaleas healthy. Watch for signs of dryness with newly planted azaleas, especially if they were planted high or located in a windy area. Drooping leaves indicate the need for supplemental watering well before the plant dries out completely. Water slowly and deeply to ensure the rootball gets plenty of moisture and the plant should rebound quickly.