May is the month that begins with Herb Day and ends with Memorial Day—with Lilac Sunday, Mother’s Day, Iris Day, and Love A Tree Day in between. This is probably one of my favorite months of the year because there’s so much activity in the garden. It’s also the peak time for the azalea, one of my favorite flowering shrubs.
I have been fascinated by the beauty of this plant since I was very young and still have vivid memories of the acres of field-grown azaleas my great-uncle grew in his nursery. The spectacular display of color it presented during the month of May is unforgettable. In Adams County, this flowering shrub seems to always be in the shadow of controversy in regard to whether it is hardy enough to thrive in this area.
The azalea is a relatively old plant dating back more than 50 million years.
It belongs to the genus Rhododendron and is native to the Northern Hemisphere. The word azalea comes from the Greek word “azaleos,” meaning dry. This is somewhat misleading since the azalea actually grows best in moist, well-drained soil. More than 800 azalea species exist, and there are as many as 10,000 varieties among these species.
Many think of the azalea as a flowering evergreen; however, there are several deciduous varieties that are usually distinguished by their bright orange and yellow blooms. I will be the first to admit that azaleas can be slightly temperamental, especially in Adams County, while in parts of Maryland and further south they seem to thrive. But, with a little tender loving care and proper placement, you can create amazing azalea gardens in this area.
When thinking about incorporating azaleas into your landscape, first consider the source from which you obtain your plants. Make all possible attempts to purchase azaleas that have been grown in our own climate zone here in Adams County. Be leery of azaleas in garden centers in full bloom weeks before azaleas are blooming in the ground here; this is most likely indicative of plants that were grown in the south and may have difficulty acclimating to our zone.
Location and soil condition is the next thing to consider, and these are key to your azalea’s survival. Azaleas like filtered shade, but it should never be generated from maple trees. The shallow roots of the maple and those of the azalea will be in competition for water, and the larger maple will win out. Full sun can be very damaging to the foliage and too much shade will cause them to become leggy and unable to bloom. The best location should also be free of harsh winter winds.
Azaleas thrive in good quality loamy soil with a pH of 4.5 to 6. The heavy clay-like soil typically found throughout Adams County needs to be generously amended with peat moss and organic compost material. The amended area should be large enough to not only accommodate the azalea’s root ball but also for the spreading root system as the plant thrives. As mentioned earlier, azaleas have very shallow root systems. Be careful not to plant your azaleas any deeper than the container in which they were grown.
After planting, a 3-inch layer of shredded hardwood mulch should be maintained around your azalea. Mulch will help hold moisture and protect the shallow roots of your plant. Until your azaleas are thoroughly established, typically three growing seasons, they should be monitored for water needs, especially in the heat of the summer.
Azaleas typically need very little pruning; however, if it is needed, it should only be done within four weeks of post bloom. Azaleas set their bloom for next year on this year’s growth, so if you trim or prune too late in the season you will cut off next year’s bloom.
Azaleas benefit greatly from fertilization applications twice a year; early spring and late fall are the ideal time to do so. Look for one that benefits acid-loving plants.
I have always found the beauty of the azalea bloom in my garden to be worth the small amount of extra tender loving care they require.
Steve and Laurie Zimmerman have owned and operated Zimmerman’s Azalea Gardens and Landscaping in Adams County since 1992. Visit their website at www.zaglandscaping.com.