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Why, Oh, Why Did My Azaleas Die?

It's a plaintive cry heard in many Georgia landscapes each summer: "My azaleas are dying! I spent good money for them at the nursery this spring, and now they're wilting. Why? Why?!"

You might have noticed in May that your newly planted azaleas were drooping in 90-degree heat. Now that summer's hottest is here, the leaves may be brown at the edges or even crisp all over.

Next spring, you'll be left with only a mass of dead twigs where your azalea once stood proud. It's a waste of money and effort to plant azaleas only to have them die. So why do so many of them meet an early demise?

No. 1 Cause of Death

The No. 1  cause of death for young azaleas is failing to have water where the roots are growing during their first year in your landscape.

Where are the roots? For the first month, 95 percent of them are still growing in the root-ball potting mixture, just as they were back at the nursery.

The azalea roots don't begin exploring the surrounding soil until the plant has become accustomed to the site where you planted it. That means you should apply water only at the base of the plant for the first month.

Best Way to Water

The best way to water is with a hose set to a slow trickle. The small stream of water will saturate the root ball without washing away the surrounding soil.

The laws of physics declare that water moves from coarse soil (the potting soil) to fine soil (natural earth), and not the reverse. The clay soil in many Georgia gardens is constantly sucking water away from your azalea's root ball.

Soak the soil beneath -- not around -- each plant at least once each week.

After one month, begin watering both under and around each plant. The roots will accelerate their growth and will be encouraged to explore the surrounding soil.

Water-soluble Fertilizer

Then apply a water-soluble fertilizer like Miracle-Gro or Peters at half-strength. New leaves will appear, photosynthesis will increase and the roots will elongate even more.

The heat of the summer brings a transition time for shrubs. They should be able to find their own water in the soil and tolerate a few dry days without wilting.

You may need to keep watering during this drought, but don't water every day. This makes the plants too dependent on you.

Remember, put the water where the roots are, and your azalea will reward you with vigorous growth, pest resistance and years of carefree maintenance.

(Walter Reeves is a horticulture educator with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and is host of the weekly Georgia Public Television series, "Gardening in Georgia.")

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