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Learn a Lesson From Little Azaleas

The little azaleas in spring nursery and garden center displays, which often seem more bloom than plant, can teach you one of life's happier lessons. If you have young azaleas or have pruned back your old azaleas, take a hint from those container dazzlers, says University of Georgia expert Mel Garber.

"Commercial azalea growers prune their small azaleas several times during a growing season," said Garber, an Extension Service horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"They do this only under controlled fertilization and watering," he said, "which is needed to promote vigorous growth."

The commercial grower's efforts yield a healthy, compact plant that explodes into bright spring blooms. That's why you can't resist buying them.

Repeat Color 'Explosion'

And once you've got them planted around your yard, it's easy to repeat that "explosion" each spring.

"Do the same thing the commercial growers do," Garber said.

Shape those young azaleas.

"Prune them a couple of times during the growing season to develop a well-branched plant," he said. "Prune (or just pinch off) the tips of the new branches after they've grown out about four or five inches.

"This type of pruning makes the plant produce more branches," he said. "You wind up shaping it into a more compact plant, too. But the most important thing is that next spring it will produce many more blooms than plants that aren't pruned this summer."

Prune After Bloom

Prune young plants after they bloom. Do heavy pruning immediately after the plants flower. For light pruning, wait until new growth appears, and prune the new growth.

Plants that have been severely pruned back this spring should be pruned a few weeks after the first vigorous growth.

In both cases, prune again as new branches grow out 4 or 5 inches.

The time between prunings can vary greatly, Garber said, between a young plant and a severely pruned plant with a mature root system.

Watch the Plant

The main thing is to watch the plant. Don't let the branches get too long before you prune or pinch off the tips to encourage branching. Prune as often as the rate of growth allows before early summer.

There's a limit, though.

"Azaleas need time for the new growth to mature and set flower buds, so don't prune after the first week in July," Garber said. "You're trying to get more blooms by pruning. But if you prune too late in the summer you could end up getting no blooms."

Don't do any pruning after the first of July, he said, except to remove a few wild, tall limbs that shoot up late in the season.

Those will mess up the shape of the plant and aren't likely to branch well next spring. Trim them out in late October or early November.

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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