How To Plant Azalea Bushes For Maximum Impact

Orchestrating a spring concert of colors is a cinch, especially when you anchor your plantings with the season’s virtuoso – the azalea. These flowering beauties are considered one of the region’s signature plants, an all-time favorite among Southern gardeners.

Undoubtedly, the reason azaleas are so popular is the sheer power of their flowers. And where one azalea looks good, you can bet five will look even better. The secret to staging a springtime extravaganza is to group azaleas that have blooms of the same color together. Planting azaleas with different flower colors creates a polka dot effect that is not very harmonious.

Whether you’re starting with a blank slate or have a cacophony of colors that needs an update, read on for instructions on planting or transplanting azaleas.

How to choose your azaleas

Ideally, the first step in creating single color swaths is to purchase shrubs when they are in bloom. Then you know for sure that you will get plants of the same color.

If it is not possible to buy them while they are in bloom, choose azaleas based on the named selection on their label. If the flower colors don’t match their labels, you can dig up the plants and move them around. (See our guide on how to do this below.)

Make sure color isn’t your only consideration when picking plants. There are hundreds of azalea species, so choose one that not only has blooms of the color you want, but is also the right size for your space and works in your climate zone.

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How to plant azaleas

Azaleas are generally hardy plants, but like any plant, they have specific light, soil, and water needs. Before planting, make sure the spot you choose gets the right amount of sun for your specific azalea variety. Most like dappled sun, but there are a few hybrids that are bred to tolerate sunnier conditions. Set your new plant up for success by following these instructions on how to plant an azalea bush.

  1. Dig a hole as deep as the azalea’s root ball and twice as wide. Azaleas like well-drained, acidic soil, so make any necessary changes to maintain the correct pH balance.
  2. If you’re planting an azalea that was in a pot, rough up the root ball to give the roots a good chance to spread in the soil.
  3. Place the plant in the hole, making sure the root ball is 4 inches above the original soil line.
  4. Add soil around the plant and pack lightly. Make sure the top of the root ball is not covered.
  5. Cover the area with 2 to 3 inches of mulch to retain moisture and prevent loose soil on and around the root ball from washing away. Azaleas are acid-loving plants, so pine needles, bark, or leaves make a good mulch as they acidify the soil as they decay.
  6. Water thoroughly, soaking the root ball and the soil around it. Keep the grafts moist for the first few weeks and water them every few days. Wean them slowly until you only water as needed. Plants will tell you when they need water – they will wilt.

Dig up and relocate azaleas

If you end up needing to relocate an azalea—either because the color doesn’t work with nearby plants or because it’s just not suited to the location—it’s a pretty easy project. Here’s how to do this without damaging your azalea’s roots.

  1. Using a round shovel, cut a circle around your shrub and dig to a shovel depth. Do not pry against the root ball with the shovel at this point, or you will loosen the soil around the root ball and it will fall apart.
  2. Dig up 6 to 8 inches of soil from the sides of the root ball.
  3. Cut underneath the azalea with a nursery spade. Azaleas are relatively shallow-rooted plants, so you don’t need to dig too deep, even with large azaleas. Trim the entire shrub, then place a shovel underneath. Rock the shovel up and down. Loosen the soil under the root ball until you can lift it. Remember to get help if the root ball is large. Your back will thank you.
  4. Lay the azalea on a cloth tarp or a piece of burlap that can be wrapped around the roots to protect them during transport and to keep the root ball intact.
  5. Follow the steps above to replant the azalea in a better spot in your garden. Until transplanting, keep the root ball moist and out of direct sun.

Tips for digging up azaleas

  • If your blade is dull, use a flat steel file to sharpen a good edge. Sharp blades cut through small roots and make digging easier. A long-bladed nursery spade comes in handy for cutting hard-to-reach roots under the shrubs.
  • Always get help when moving larger plants as they can be heavy and unwieldy. With help, larger root balls can be dug, increasing the chances of your transplanted shrubs – and your back – surviving.
  • The size of the root ball you dig will depend on the size and growing conditions of your plants. Newly planted azaleas (1 to 5 years old) should be easy to dig, while established plants will be more difficult.
  • Dig up as large a root ball as possible. A good rule of thumb is that the root ball should be half the diameter of your azalea. For example, if your shrub is 36 inches in diameter, your root ball should be 18 inches in diameter.

When to plant an azalea

Spring and fall, when temperatures are cool, are excellent times to plant azaleas. But if you buy in spring, when the azaleas are in bloom, you can be sure you’re getting the colors you want. Summer planting is fine, but hot weather will require frequent watering.

And don’t forget to plant and transplant early in the day or later in the evening, not midday when temperatures are at their highest. It’s crucial that your azalea’s roots don’t dry out during the planting process, and hot temperatures make it that much harder to keep the roots cool and moist.

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