While watching the Masters® Tournament on TV, viewers are often struck by the beauty of the Augusta National golf course. Many of the holes on this famous course are graced by billowy clouds of evergreen azaleas. These swaths of color are used to add interest and structure to the course just as they can be employed in our home landscapes to add visual appeal.
There are many varieties of azaleas to choose from depending on your needs. Some larger azaleas can grow to be 10 feet tall and can be used as a privacy screen. The Southern Indica hybrids are useful in this way. Depending on the year, they flower in late March to late April. The flowers can reach a diameter of 2 to 3 inches. My three favorite cultivars are the rose purple "Formosa," the light pink "George L. Taber" and "Mrs G.G. Gerbing," which is white. The colors of these three varieties work well planted in drifts in the same landscape.
To meet your need for a mid-sized shrub used as a foundation plant or as a mass in a planting bed, consider Encore azaleas. These azaleas are relatively new on the scene and provide a big bang for your buck. The majority of these azaleas grow to be between 3 to 5 feet tall, and the 23 varieties come in an array of beautiful colors. What makes them special, however, is that they bloom in spring and create buds on the new growth over the summer so they can “wow” us again with their second act in mid-August. Two seasons of bloom plus they provide evergreen winter interest to boot!
In spaces where you require a very low growing evergreen shrub such as under a low window or along a path, "Gumpo" azaleas are a great choice. These low, dense, compact azaleas produce an abundance of blooms in June, and they remain less than 2 feet tall. "Gumpo" produces white blooms and "Pink Gumpo" is pale pink with a white edge.
Consider your overall design when planting azaleas. Mass plantings with drifts of the same color are best. Do not alternate colors as this creates a distracting polka dot affect. I imagine the golfers at the Masters would have a tough time concentrating on their swings if they were surrounded by a candy cane background of alternating red and white azaleas!
When planting your azaleas, choose a site in filtered shade out of direct afternoon sun. Soil is the key. Azaleas like acidic soil with a pH of 5.5-6.0. Plant them in well-drained soil with lots of organic matter. Drainage is very important. Break up clay by tilling in aged pine bark, compost or manure. Add fertilizer before planting. A slow-release variety feeds them over a longer period of time. Do not plant them too deep, or root rot will occur. Finish up with 2-3 inches of mulch to hold in moisture and prevent weeds.
Azaleas are relatively low maintenance. However, while becoming established, azaleas will need to be kept well watered. Place the nozzle of the hose at the base of each plant and let it slowly drip for 20 minutes to give your azaleas a long, deep drink. Fertilize with a slow release fertilizer or azalea food as directed on the label after the azaleas bloom. Azaleas are most susceptible to lace bugs and spider mites, which suck juices from the leaves. Treat with a systemic pesticide formulated for these insects as directed by the label.
For more information about azaleas, visit the Azalea Society of America at www.azaleas.org. Good luck “mastering” your garden!