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Become an azalea doctor, keep plants thriving

Extension advice

POSTED: March 30, 2018 6:00 p.m.
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Richard Evans is UGA Extension Service agent in Bryan County.

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Azaleas have been a southern favorite for years. In the Old South, azaleas graced plantation houses with their charm, provided flowers for corsages and were the backbone of many landscape plantings.

The taller Indica azaleas worked well to hide the less attractive foundations of homes. The plants grew so large they even supplied a hideaway for kids to play under their leaves. They were a part of Southern life.

Today, newer azalea varieties multiply the plant’s usefulness. Kurume varieties will grow up to 4 to 6 feet tall and look good under windows and in beds. Gumpo varieties are so short they can be used almost like ground covers.

Of course, these azaleas have the same preferences as older varieties. They need at least some shade and moist but well-drained soils. Azaleas’ shallow roots grow best when planted shallowly, mulched heavily and watered frequently.

Although azaleas are "low care," they are not "no care." They require some maintenance and respond well to good care. Let me encourage you to be a plant doctor and give your azaleas their annual physical in March.

Before you can practice medicine, you must be licensed. Welcome to the University of Georgia Extension Service School of Azalea Medicine.

Our first lesson is on azalea nutrition. Just like us, plants do not do well without the proper diet. Though they make their own food, they need 16 different elements to do this. Two in particular may be lacking now.

Nitrogen is No. 1 in most plant diets. It is important in making proteins, forming good green color and general plant growth. Nitrogen-starved plants will yellow starting in the older leaves. Some leaves may fall off.

Do not despair though. You can generally resuscitate the plant with a shot of 16-4-8, 15-0-15 or other fertilizer. Treat this affliction with three tablespoons per 10 square feet of bed now and again in May or July. Scatter fertilizer evenly around the plant to keep from burning roots.

Iron-poor plants have yellow younger leaves. The veins stay green while the rest of the leaf yellows. This may be harder to cure since iron deficiency can be caused by high pH soils.

An iron spray or granules applied to the soil should be the proper medicine. If there is a relapse, take a soil sample around the plant to diagnose the real reason for the malady.

Do you have that? Good! Now for a class on external parasites of azaleas – in other words, bugs. (Did you ever notice that in school they use big words for everything?)

Lacebugs literally suck the life out of azalea leaves. Attached leaves look speckled on top, almost silvery. Underneath the leaves will be brown tarry spots where they hide their eggs.

Do not doctor them now. Give them a weekly exam. Knock the branches over a white sheet of paper. Spray Orthene or Sevin when you can see the small lace bugs hatching out. They begin life clear and spiny and grow to one-eighth-inch long with clear lacy wings and black bodies.

This treatment may be needed up to three times to give full relief. Look for the pests and spray when you see them. The first spray (usually in mid-March) is the most important.

Our final class is on surgery. Do your azaleas have dead branches and limbs in them? This is called dieback. This malaise is due to fungi infecting the stems and plugging the plant’s arteries. Unfortunately, it is not curable. All we can do is to remove the dead limbs. Plants may recover or continue to die.

Prune just after bloom for best plant growth. Late pruning can slow their growth rate. Take your scalpel (your pruning shears) and cut out all the dead limbs. Cut back into live wood. Remove stems with cracked bark and diseased limbs.

Being an azalea doctor may not pay well, but there are several excellent fringe benefits. Nursing your azaleas can be very rewarding. They will show their thanks with years of blooms and nice green foliage.

The successful graduate of our azalea medical school is the one who remembers to care for his or her plants at all times of the year, not just while they are in bloom.

Speaking of physicians, don’t forget to bring your pets to the Bryan County Rabies Clinic from 8 a.m. to noon May 5 at Lanier Primary School in Pembroke. Rabies shots are just $10, parvo and bordetella shots are only $18.

For more information on being a plant physician, call the Bryan County Extension Office at 912-653-2231 or email us at uge3029@uga.edu.

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