Azalea Mulching Guidelines: What’s The Best Azalea Mulch

By: Teo Spengler

Azaleas,plants in the Rhododendron genus, areamong the most colorful and easy-care flowering shrubs a gardener can have inthe backyard. Their requirements are few, but they do need moist soil. Mulchingazalea bushes is one way to keep the humidity in the soil, but using mulch forazaleas helps the plants in other ways too. Read on for information about thebest azalea mulch, including tips on how to mulch azaleas.

About Azalea Mulching

Before you choose a mulch for azaleas, it’s important tounderstand the concept of mulch. Mulchis a verb that means placing a layer of material on the top of the soil aroundplants to hold in moisture and keep down weeds. It’s also a noun referring tothe material you can use.

Almost anything capable of being layered can work as mulch,including newspaper, pebbles and chopped dry leaves. But many gardeners thinkorganic mulch is best, and it does seem to be best for azalea mulching.

Organicmulches are materials that were once alive, like pineneedles, organic compost and dried leaves. Organic mulches work bestas mulch for azaleas since they disintegrate into the soil over time, enrichingit and increasing drainage.

Reasons for Mulching Azalea Bushes

Azaleas can grow into good-sized shrubs, with some cultivarsshooting up taller than the average gardener. But no matter how tall they grow,their roots are quite shallow. These plants need slightly acidic soil withexcellent drainage, since they don’t like wet feet. Still, azaleas only thriveif the soil around their roots is moist soil.

That’s where mulching azalea bushes comes into the picture.Azalea mulching means you can water less but offer your plants consistentlymoist soil, since the best azalea mulches prevent moisture from evaporating inheat.

How to Mulch Azaleas

If you are wondering how to mulch azaleas, you’ll be happyto learn that it’s an easy task. You’ll need a good, organic mulch.

The best azalea mulches include pine needles and driedchopped oak leaves. These are organic mulches that do the job keeping themoisture in the soil, regulating soil temperature and keeping down the weeds.They also add a little acidity to the soil.

Mulching azaleas involves mounding about three or fourinches (7 to 10 cm.) of one of these mulches in a wide circle around the baseof the plant, covering the root area. Don’t extend the mulch right up to theplant; keep the mulch a few inches from the stems and foliage.

It’s best to mulch soil that is already moist. You can dothis by waiting until after a rain or watering the soil before mulching. Keepyour eye on how the mulch is doing and replace it when it breaks down, usuallyat least once or twice a year.

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Growing Rhododendrons & Azalea Bushes in Your Garden

Dandy Man® Purple rhododendron. Photo by: Proven Winners.

Rhododendrons and azaleas are acid-loving, woody shrubs with colorful flower clusters. They prefer damp climates and mild temperatures, but there are rhododendron plants and azalea bushes suitable for Zones 4-9. With thousands of varieties available, there's one to suit just about every garden.

Azaleas are actually a type of rhododendron, and while they are similar in shape to other rhododendrons, they can be differentiated by their hairy leaves and five stamens (instead of the usual ten).

The Azalea – Star of the Southern Garden

How to make them shine longer each spring

By Mary T. Dial, the Itinerant Gardener

Azaleas are one of the most popular, easy to grow and rewarding plants in the Southern garden. The variety of size, bloom time and color make azaleas a wonderful asset in a garden of any size from a large suburban garden to a small, enclosed courtyard. There are a multitude of azalea varieties ranging from the largest Southern Indicas, which can grow to a width and height of six to 12 feet, to the smallest variety, the Gumpos, which grow to a height of one foot. The colors vary from white, pink, lavender, violet, salmon and orange to a deep red. With proper planning, the spring garden can be filled with beautiful blooming azaleas from late February through the end of May.

Azaleas can be divided into two groups: deciduous and evergreen. In this column I will discuss the evergreen variety, originating in the Orient and first introduced to North America in the early 1800s. The Southern azalea was brought to Charleston in 1848 and made its way to the Midlands shortly thereafter. The Southern Indicas are the larger azaleas that decorate so many of our gardens and that grace the fairways of The Augusta National every year during The Masters Golf Tournament. They put on quite a show in early to mid-April. The most common varieties are:

‘Formosa’ which has a large magenta bloom, ‘George Tabor’ which has an orchid bloom with a lavender center blotch, ‘Mrs. G.G. Gerbing’ which has a white bloom, and ‘Pride of Mobile’ which has a watermelon red blossom. These hybrids are mid season bloomers and work well planted together.

The Karume varieties are lower growing bushes that range from two to four feet. This group includes ‘Coral Bells’ which has a coral pink hose-in-hose bloom (appears as if one flower grew out of another), ‘Hino Crimson’ which has a brilliant red, single bloom and ‘Snow’ which has a pure white hose-in-hose bloom. These Karumes are early season bloomers that herald the arrival of early spring.

The Gumpos are later bloomers and are low growing bushes. These include ‘Pink Gumpo’ that has a light pink single bloom and ‘White Gumpo’ that has a single white blossom. These late bloomers extend the bloom time of the azaleas in the garden. They are also low growing, compact plants, so they make a wonderful border for a bed of the large and medium size varieties.

There are some other outstanding hybrids such as ‘Mary Corcoran’ which has a white blossom touched with pink in the early spring and ‘Pink Cascade,’ a late bloomer, which has a salmon pink flower with a red blotch.

Encore Azaleas are repeat bloomers of mid-size growth. There are more than 20 cultivars with more and more hybrids introduced every year. These azaleas put on a big flush of blooms in the mid spring and then intermittently during the spring and summer and sometimes into fall.

In or Out of Fashion?

Just as ladies’ fashion changes, so do gardening trends. Traditional azaleas have lost their appeal with many gardeners. It could be because of the way they are planted. Azaleas do not make the best foundation plants. They should be allowed to grow in their natural shape and not be pruned into contrived shapes. They do not work well in a foundation bed because the plants grow too tall and block the windows. Azaleas do not look their best if sheared into a ball or square. They do not look good when dotted around the yard and planted as specimens. They should be planted in groups of like varieties and complimentary colors and allowed to grow into their natural form.

The Gumpos can be the most attractive in a foundation bed because they stay small and compact and do not need pruning. The Southern Indicas are quite large shrubs when they mature and do well in a large bed away from the foundation. One way to design the bed is to plant the Indicas in swaths of three or four varieties. Another successful way to plan a successful combination is to plant groups of three to four plants of each variety at the back of the bed. For example, plant three ‘Formosas’ in a group next to three ‘Mrs. G.G. Gerbing’ next to three ‘George Tabors.’ When they bloom in mid spring, they will produce three blocks of color: magenta, white and lavender. In front of those, plant the Karumes in the same block pattern: ‘Coral Bells’ next to ‘Snow’ next to ‘Hino Crimson.’ Putting the white varieties of both types in the middle ties the color blocks together. In front of these add a border of one type of Gumpo, either ‘Pink’ or ‘White.’ The ‘Pink’ can be more pleasing because it ties all of the other colors together.

Sun or Shade? Where to Plant?

Azaleas actually need a little bit of both sun and shade. If they are planted in too much sun, they may suffer from leaf scorch. If they are planted in too much shade, they may not put forth a lot of blooms. This is the Goldilocks theory! Azaleas thrive when planted where they receive morning sun and dappled light through out the day. The summer afternoon sun can be too harsh and cause them to struggle. Azaleas do well planted under the canopy of tall pine trees or the lower canopy of dogwood trees.

What Kind of Soil?

Azaleas do best in moist, well-drained acidic soil with lots of organic matter. They thrive under pine trees because the falling pine needles add acid to the soil as they decompose. Make sure they get plenty of water if planted under trees because they will compete with the trees for moisture, and the trees will usually win. If the leaves begin to yellow, feed them with a slow-release acidic azalea or camellia fertilizer. The best time to apply fertilizer is after they bloom and again in mid-summer. Follow directions for application and be sure to water thoroughly after the treatment. If planted in the proper setting, established azaleas need little care. Prune carefully and they will produce layers and layers of bell-shaped flowers for years to come.

How to Prune

It is best to use hand clippers and loppers to prune azaleas. Make sure the blades are very sharp to make nice clean cuts. Do not use electric shears to prune azaleas. The plants will die out in the middle, and there will only be green leaves at the very tip of the branches. The best time to prune is very soon after blooming. Most azaleas look best and more natural when pruned as little as possible. If long, stray branches appear, reach down into the plant and cut close to a larger, stronger branch. This type of pruning maintains the natural shape and keeps the plant healthy by allowing sunlight to filter through the entire plant and air to circulate through the center of the shrub. Also remove any dead or crossing branches.

If azaleas have been neglected and are too tall and out of shape, rejuvenation pruning may be necessary to bring them back. Do this type of pruning in late February. The plants will not produce blossoms that year but the bushes should respond quickly and bloom the following spring. Mature plants can be cut down to a height of eight to 12 inches. Again, use sharp loppers to do this. Make sure the shrubs are fed a slow release, water-soluble fertilizer and watered evenly and frequently.

Mulching azaleas is one of the most important aspects to successful growth. Pine straw and hard wood mulch add acid to the soil as they disintegrate which helps maintain the acidic soil that azaleas love. The mulch also conserves moisture in the soil and protects the plant from extreme hot or cold temperatures. A depth of two to three inches should be spread around each bush, adding more as it decays. The mulch also aesthetically enhances the bed and adds the finishing touch.

Need more Plants? Learn to Propagate

Azaleas are one of the easiest plants to propagate. All gardeners, amateur or experienced, can propagate their favorite variety by ‘layering.’ Choose a low growing branch, bend it to touch the ground, notch the branch with a sharp knife, cover the notched branch with organic material and a brick or stone on top of that to ensure that it remains in contact with the ground. You may also secure it to the ground by using landscape pins that are used in irrigation. Make sure the branch is kept moist. Leave the branch undisturbed until it develops strong roots. Dig it up as an individual plant and move it to another area in the garden. Before long there will be enough azaleas to create a new bed.

Beautiful Azalea Gardens in South Carolina

Plan to visit one or more of the beautiful azalea gardens in South Carolina this spring to get more ideas of how to incorporate azaleas into the landscape. Magnolia Gardens outside of Charleston is the quintessential azalea garden and is the perfect place to begin the azalea tour. Magnolia Gardens claims to be the first American garden to plant azaleas outside, not just under glass. There are thousands of blooming azaleas decorating Magnolia in the spring. The Southern Indicas are the stars of this garden. Many new varieties are added every year, so it is a great way to learn about the newest hybrids and their preferred habitats.

Closer to home is the W. Gordon Belser Arboretum right here in Columbia at the lower end of Wheat Street. This garden is not a decorative garden but a collection of native plants. There is a nice collection of native azaleas that are in bloom in mid to late spring. There is a map at the entrance that directs the visitor to the azalea collection.

Another way to train your eye is to drive around different neighborhoods in the spring when azaleas are blooming. If you see a display that appeals to your gardening style, snap a photo and incorporate the idea in your own garden. There is nothing more beautiful than Spring Lake Road, off of North Trenholm Road, in the spring when the Yoshino cherries and all of the azaleas are in full bloom.

Helpful Hints

It is a good idea to buy azaleas when they are in bloom to make sure that the plant tag matches the correct variety. It would be very disappointing to buy three ‘Formosas’ and find out they were really ‘Mrs. G.G.Gerbing’ once they bloomed. The leaves look the same so it can be very confusing.

If your garden is full of healthy azaleas that are not in the location you desire, transplant them. Azaleas are very easy to transplant if done properly. The best time to transplant azaleas is in late fall. By transplanting in the fall, the roots have more time to acclimate to their new surroundings and get a head start on the next growing season. It is a good idea to trim back the branches by one third. The blooms may be sacrificed for the following spring but the chances of successful transplanting are much better. Plus, you can shape the bush if it has gotten out of shape.

Make sure the selected plants get plenty of water for a week or two before they are moved. Before digging up the azalea, dig the hole where it will be moved. Also make sure that the new hole is the same depth as that of the azalea that is going to be transplanted. The new hole should be half again as wide as the root ball. It is also a good idea to put water in the new hole so that bottom roots will get plenty of moisture.

Using a sharp, clean shovel, dig a hole 12 to18 inches around the trunk of the existing azalea. Work the shovel under the roots and apply pressure to the shovel to lift the plant. Do this around the entire plant. Gently lift the plant being careful not to disturb the roots. Set the plant in the new hole at the proper depth and back fill with soil. Water the plant thoroughly to make sure there are no air pockets. Mulch the transplant with pine straw or hard wood mulch. Monitor the rainfall for the next few months and water by hand if necessary.

Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labors

With proper planning, planting and maintenance of your azaleas, you will be rewarded next spring with a garden ablaze with colorful and healthy azaleas. If Easter coincides with the bloom time of the azaleas, the Easter Bunny will have a perfect place to hide his eggs.

Monthly Garden Chores for March

• Nurseries are well stocked in March, so visit as many as you can and pick out some new varieties of trees, shrubs and perennials. March is a perfect time to plant new trees, shrubs and perennials.

• Start zinnia, portulaca, salvia and cleome seeds inside so they are ready to transplant to the garden in May.

• Divide perennials in over crowded clumps and move to other areas.

• Heavy pruning not completed in February can be continued and finished.

• Make sure beds are edged and mulched so they will look neat and tidy when the big bloom of azaleas and flowering trees occurs.

• Now is a good time to rake old mulch away from rose bushes and apply new mulch.

• Any house plants that have been over wintering inside may be taken outside during warm daylight hours.


About the Azalea

These attractive, compact evergreens possesses 1-4″ wide, brilliant colored trumpet flowers that vary from shades of red, purple, pink and white. Some flowers may be single, doubled, frilly and freckled. They possess good cold hardiness, dense growth habit, and autumn color making a great choice for shady foundation plantings, borders, or masses. Deciduous Azaleas are also available growing taller and wider that evergreen types. Flowers are generally more fragrant, bloom later, and come in eye-catching shades of yellow, orange, pink and white.

Care Notes

Prefers protected, shady spots with well-drained, amended soil. Water well after planting maintain 1” of water once a week the first year. Prune in spring immediately after flowering to control size, and remove stray shoots or damaged limbs anytime. Fertilize in early spring, mid-summer and fall with an acidic fertilizer. Follow label instructions. Mulch 2″ to suppress weeds, retain moisture and protect against extremes of soil temperature. Wrap in burlap or spray with Wilt-stop to protect from winter desiccation.

Planting For Success

We want your new plants to look as amazing at home as they do in our garden centers! And we know the level of care taken when planting can make all the difference. Follow Angelo's six easy steps for best results and performance.

Time to dig in

(Jeannie Phan For The Washington Post)

Gardening is a year-round treat, but the arrival of spring is special, because it’s the moment when both the gardener and all the plants in the yard are bursting with excitement.

The next six weeks or so mark not only the time when we launch the growing season, but also the period when plants are at their most vulnerable. Fresh growth is tender and can be damaged by the wild swings in weather in March and April. In the Mid-Atlantic (and many other parts of the country), Mother Nature can give us an 80-degree blast followed by a freeze and a punishing hailstorm. There isn’t much you can do about hail damage, but there are measures you can take to help the garden survive the weather roller coaster. They also give you a chance to get outside to greet and enjoy the spring.

You will have to get fresh supplies of plants, soil mixes, fertilizers and tools. This might be a concern in the time of coronavirus restrictions, but many garden centers, hardware stores and feed stores operate outdoors for the most part. And, of course, there’s that bazaar known as the Internet.

The gardener's guide to Lenten rose

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The gardener's guide to azaleas

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Cleanup and bed preparation

In beds free of permanent plantings, such as the vegetable garden and annual flower beds, the tasks are straightforward. The first job is to remove weeds. Forget the impending dandelions and violets I’m talking about established winter weeds, whose roots now go deep, with such interlopers as henbit, chickweed, bittercress and ground ivy. You rarely need herbicides for this the weeds will lift quite easily between your fingers in the rich, moist soil of the veggie patch. They will also surrender to a weeding knife or a sharp, long-handled hoe. Get to them before they go to seed.

Weed seeds will germinate any time the soil is disturbed, so weeding is not an annual event it is a way of life. By sowing desired seeds in a straight row, you can more easily spot the gate-crashing weed seedlings for rapid removal.

All the dead carrots, kale stalks and other lingering detritus of last season should also be removed as you work the soil.

The soil will be compacted by snow and rain, and it will need fluffing up. The easy way to do this is with a three-pronged cultivator, though I prefer to turn the bed with a garden fork, which gets deeper. After scuffing up the soil, add a layer of fresh material to the bed and work it in. You can use your own screened compost or bags of soil amendments. I like to use purchased composted leaf mold and aged manure, which, in my experience, are reliably free of weed seeds. Water the newly prepared bed and wait a few days for the soil to settle before seeding and planting.

In permanent plant beds, the cleanup needs a more delicate touch. When removing weeds, take care not to damage the emerging growth of bulbs and perennials. Hand-pulling is a good option, or use a small, sharp knife to get into tight spots.

Remove any accumulated winter-blown leaf litter from under bushes and hedges, and cut back any remaining dead stalks of last year’s perennials and grasses, again being careful around emerging shoots. The soil will benefit from a little cultivation and a top dressing of compost or leaf mold, which is then scratched into the soil. These beds also should be mulched.

Frost protection

Once trees and shrubs have broken into flower and leaf growth, they are prone to cold damage, because the tissues are soft and tender. It pays to keep an eye on nighttime temperatures into early May. If a frost or near-frost is predicted, you can cover certain plants for protection. The Hortensia hydrangeas are a good candidate for this, as are Japanese maples. The blossoms of strawberries and blueberries should be covered against freezing, as well as those of apples, peaches and persimmons if the trees are small enough to wrap.

Seedlings of veggies, herbs and annuals should be covered on such nights.

If you don’t have horticultural row fabric, you could use a light sheet. The challenge is ensuring the covering won’t blow off (clothes pins are handy), and don’t use anything that will crush small plants.

Seeding and hardening off

We start young plants in two ways: either by seeding directly into the garden or planting small transplants that are a few weeks old. Some seeds can go directly into the ground now, including peas, radishes, carrots, nasturtium and lettuce, but wait until the soil has warmed, until at least early May in the Mid-Atlantic, for sowing (or transplanting) warm-season vegetables and summer annuals.

The process of conditioning transplants for the spring garden is called hardening off. If you don’t do this, plants will probably wilt and die — or at least fail to thrive. Even if you buy transplants, there’s no guarantee that they have been adequately conditioned, so you should harden them off to be sure.

During the day, place the pots outside in a sheltered area, away from the wind and afternoon sun. Bring them in at night. Water them at least once daily, before they wilt. Do this for a week before planting, longer if cold temperatures are in the forecast.

Cold is not the only problem. After planting, transplants should be protected from sun and wind, at least for their first 24 hours, with horticultural row covers or shade cloth. If that is not an option, plant on a cloudy or rainy day.

Transplants of hardier plants, such as cabbages, broccoli, parsley, lavender, cilantro, nasturtium and pansies, are happy to be planted in April. Warm-season transplants, such as tomato, pepper, squash, cucumber and basil, need the warmer soils and temperatures of May. Don’t be in a rush to plant them, even if they are available (too early) at retailers.


A light layer of mulch, no more than two inches, is helpful in suppressing weeds and retaining soil moisture. But mulch should not be viewed as a cosmetic covering for our benefit it is there for the plants’ needs. Mulches that are applied too thickly or too often will harm plants and the soil. I prefer fine-textured, organic mulches, such as pine fines. Save wood chips for paths. Avoid mulch volcanoes around trees, which cause harmful root growth and other problems.

If you need acres of mulch every spring, it’s because you don’t have enough ground-covering plants.

It may be impractical to plant every vacant bed in the yard at once, but you could start this spring by tackling an area that is, say, 10 feet by 10 feet. Plug plants take a couple of years to fill in, but they offer a more affordable way to plant en masse.


It’s best to plant most trees and shrubs in early fall, because they are not then putting energy into top growth while dealing with transplant shock. Spring-planted woodies need handling with more care, and the earlier you can plant them, the more established they will be before summer.

Most trees and shrubs are container-grown and may have congested roots that need teasing out and trimming, so there is always a degree of root manipulation and damage when planting. Be gentle, and make sure the tree or shrub is set at the correct height and that the backfilled soil is packed firmly. A good soaking at planting time is in order, and plants should be watered periodically, especially if the weather turns dry, but the roots should not be kept wet.

The principle of handling roots gently applies to perennials and annuals, too.


Any lawn will look better after it’s given a sharp edge where it meets plant beds. Use a spade or long-handled edging tool rather than a shovel, if possible.

The predominant grass type in the Mid-Atlantic, turf-type tall fescue, grows rapidly in spring, especially a wet one. It is best kept at a somewhat tall three inches to reduce stress, but mow it before it gets more than four inches in height. This may mean having to mow twice a week in April and May. Replace or sharpen dull mower blades.

Pre-emergent herbicides are available to deal with crabgrass and Japanese stiltgrass, but the best way to minimize lawn weeds is to have a thick stand of turf. Dandelions and other weeds can be hand-dug or given a spot treatment of weed killer.

Lawn fertilizer should be applied at half the normal fall rate in spring to reduce nutrient runoff, but check the rules where you live some jurisdictions limit fertilizer and pesticide use on home lawns.

The optimal time for seeding with fescues is late summer and early fall. Bare patches can be seeded now with proper soil preparation, but the new grass may melt away in summer heat. Similarly, fresh sod also needs soil preparation and may not make it through the summer, but it will look good for a few weeks, at least. Consider converting a part of the lawn into plant beds.

Container gardening

Old soil and plant material should be cleaned out the soil can be spread around the garden, and pots can be scrubbed with a bleach solution to sanitize them and send any slugs on their way. It’s best to use fresh potting mix. To make it go farther, fill the bottom half of the pot with your own compost. Any weed seeds in the compost will be safely buried.

Containers must drain. Make sure the drainage holes are not blocked, and don’t put a saucer underneath. The same hardening-off rules apply to container plants.


Plants get a boost from fertilizer, but check the ratio of key nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — to see if it matches the plant you’re feeding. Slow-release feeds are useful in container plants. Granular fertilizer can damage plant tissues. Generally, I prefer organic fertilizers, such as kelp meal, fish emulsion and plant feeds made from livestock byproducts. They are gentle on plants and help to sustain soil biology.

Watch the video: The Best Mulch for Azaleas

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