Time to start pruning azaleas for next year

May 1, 2013 

Our oldest daughter graduates from the Macon State nursing program May 10. She is excited, but I can tell that the serious nature of this occasion has begun to settle in. She said that she has been looking forward to this day but now that it is here, she does not know what to do. I know how she feels. She has decided to sleep five days straight right after graduation, but I have not had the nerve to tell her that school may be over but work is coming.

Azaleas have finished bloom, but you ask, “What do I do for the next 50 weeks until they bloom again?” Here are some ideas from my friend Frank Watson, Wilkes County extension agent, about what to do after the flowers fade.

Prepare your azaleas now to look their best the rest of the year and to bloom again next year. You can begin pruning azaleas and other spring blooming plants after bloom. A good time to begin pruning is about 6 weeks after bloom. We stop azalea pruning in mid-July because the plant begins to form flower buds for next year in mid-summer.

Encore azaleas are unique in that they bloom heavily in the spring but then can bloom again in the fall. So when do we prune them? Prune them only if necessary and then prune lightly. Prune right after they bloom and then do not prune again until the same time next year. You can remove individual long shoots during the year until July but save most of the pruning for right after bloom.

There are two basic types of pruning cuts: heading and thinning cuts. Azaleas respond differently to each type of cut.

Thinning involves removing long shoots one shoot at a time. Follow the shoot down into the plant to where it branches from another stem and cut it there. After thinning, a plant will retain its natural growth form and the cuts will not usually be visible. The plant will be smaller but will not look like it has been pruned. As long as you do not overdo it, you can lightly thin azaleas and most other plants at any time of the year.

Heading cuts involve shearing the plant into a specific shape. All branches are cut at the same level without regard to whether they branch at that point or not. These cut branches will usually sprout several new shoots creating a smaller but denser plant. Heading cuts should only be done at the timing mentioned earlier. Heading should be done cautiously because plants can be too sheared too heavily and too often leading to an overly thick or stunted plant. Shape azaleas so they are wider at the bottom than at the top.

If azaleas have overgrown their location, you can reduce the size of the plant by heading all the branches back to a height of 12-18 inches. This can only be done in early spring and the plant should be carefully watered for several months after bloom. This is a stressful form of pruning and can damage or kill weak plants.

You can remove dead branches at any time, but do so properly. Branches may die because they have been infected with a fungus disease. When cutting out the dead branch, prune way back into the healthy green wood. This removes the disease. You may want to occasionally clean your shears by dipping them in rubbing alcohol. This can reduce the spread of the disease into healthy stems.

Check your azaleas for lace bugs while you are pruning. Lace bugs make the leaves silvery speckled on top. Under the leaf you will see brown tarry spots. These are the droppings and eggs of the insect. Lace bugs emerge in March and April. Tap a branch over a piece of white paper and watch to see if lace bugs fall onto the paper. The young are dark and somewhat spiny. Adults have clear lacy wings held flat over their back. An insecticide spray or two may be needed to control lace bugs.

Willie Chance works with the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture and helps to train the turf and landscape industry.

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