Gardeners' Dirt: A lasting Valentine's Day gift
By Linda Hartman - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
Feb. 6, 2014 at midnight
Updated Feb. 5, 2014 at 8:06 p.m.
Love for a person - just like a garden - needs tending every day, not just Feb. 14. We all enjoy candy, lovely cards and flowers for Valentine's Day, but the candy disappears, the cards are filed away, and the blossoms wilt and fade. Why not give a gift that will be enjoyed for many years?
Azaleas are colorful. They announce the coming of spring. They are favored by many in the southeast portions of the U.S., including Texas, and they can be tall and wide. The dwarf shrub azaleas, however, are perfect for smaller landscapes, for shady areas, for container gardens and for adding new colors to an existing yard.
All azaleas are members of the rhododendron family. Dwarf azaleas, known as Kurume azaleas, are hybrids of two species from the Japanese island of Kyushu, and they grow well in zones 6-9. Azaleas work well in beds of gardenias and camellias since all have the same care requirements.
Planting your Valentine's gift
Develop a landscape plan because all plants should enhance your garden - not become a distraction or a maintenance chore.
Consider mature plant size
Pay attention to the size of your plant at its ultimate growth. A small, lovely shrub might become a giant in your garden. Fortunately, Kurume azaleas should only be between 2 to 4 feet in height and 2 to 3 feet in width.
Well-drained soil is a must for azaleas. The soil must be kept moderately moist at all times. Too wet, they will die; bone dry, even once, they will die. The best planting mix should be a good organic combination of peat moss, compost of decomposed pine bark and expanded shale. There are commercial azalea mixes available at garden centers.
Top root ball with shredded mulch
If your soil is less than ideal, plant the root ball 1.5 to 3 inches higher than the ground level. (This is a good idea regardless of your soil.) Mound the planting mix over the raised root ball and top with shredded mulch such as ground cedar or cypress. Azaleas have a shallow root system, and mulching is a proactive approach to saving our valuable water resources.
When planted in the fall, azalea roots will not have to compete with the foliage for nutrients before the plant blooms.
Yellow leaf veins indicate iron deficiency
The yellowing of the leaf veins indicate the need of iron for your plant. Iron chlorosis is common when azaleas are planted near foundations or sidewalks, where there may be an excess of lime in the soil. Treat this problem with copperas or ferrous sulfate. Yellow leaves in the winter are a natural occurrence.
Plant stress leads to lace bugs
Azalea lace bugs attack plants that are under stress caused by too much water, too little water or the incorrect amount of sun. These little sapsuckers attack the undersides of azalea leaves and feed on the green chlorophyll cells. The leaves will appear gray, blanched or have a coarse, stippled (dotted) appearance.
Insecticidal soaps or horticultural oil must reach the undersides of all leaves to be effective. Careful monitoring should be maintained especially on the new growth of the shrub.
Loving care for your Valentine
To produce beautiful blooms, gardeners must consider fertilizing their azaleas.
Fertilize after blooming season into mid-September
It is important to use small amounts of cottonseed meal or any of the acid-forming commercial fertilizers. It would be safer to cut the suggested amounts in half and feed twice as often. Continue feeding until early fall in mid-September.
Reshape with hand clippers; no electric shears
Prune the azaleas after the blooming season using hand clippers to reshape your shrub. Never use electric shears when trimming an azalea bush.
Azalea blooms are usually 1 to 2 inches across and will appear in the spring. The lovely green leaves will add to the beauty of your garden throughout the year until fall. There are many different colors to choose from when selecting Kurume azaleas.
In the 1980s, Robert E. Lee hybridized the Encore azaleas, which are diverse in color and size. Many of these are dwarf in size and are known to bloom for three seasons. With names such as Autumn Angel (white blooms for up to nine months) and Autumn Amethyst (purple), these should brighten one's Valentine's Day.
Consider a dwarf azalea for a lasting Valentine's Day gift.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.