Azaleas star in the ‘Colors of Spring’ show

The colors of spring are everywhere. Phlox is spilling over garden walls, tulips are blooming, flowering dogwood, redbud trees seem to be everywhere and the azaleas are in bloom. What’s spring in Appalachia without azaleas?

This flowering shrub brings the next wave of spring color to our landscapes. Blooms of white, pink, coral and magenta cover the shrub, creating floral globes that last for weeks.
Azaleas like the morning sun, then dappled shade in the afternoon. This exposure will produce a larger shrub and more flowers. If planted in the deep shade, the plant may not grow as tall or have the same number of blooms as those exposed to sunshine. Think of this as the plant on the forest edge, not deep under the trees.

Here’s a fun fact. Did you know azaleas and rhododendrons are related? Azaleas are part of the rhododendron genus, something like cousins, and have many of the same growing needs.

Now, I’m interrupting this azalea report to bring you a geeky plant update. It’s the time of year when we are all out and about buying plants, so here’s a quick refresher in labeling. When you look at a plant tag, catalog, or talk with an expert, they will often use the Latin name of plants. This is an exact method of identification. The first word or genus is the large category the plant belongs to; plants with the same genus share common traits. You can learn information such as the plants’ soil, nutrients and watering needs.

The second word on the label is the species, breaking down the identity a bit further, and can tell of the plant’s color, size, growing habitats, perhaps even the person who discovered the plant. Next comes the variety. All of this is somewhat like a family tree for the plant. It reminds me of the first day of school when the teacher calls everyone by their given names before learning nicknames and shortened versions that everyone uses.

Back to azaleas. They are a species of the rhododendron genus, and there are several varieties within the species. But for today, let’s focus on the species and not the oodles of varieties available.

Azaleas like acidic, well-draining soil. They have shallow roots and like to be watered quite often. When planting your new shrub, plan to water it as much as twice a week for the first few months. As the plant settles in, you can drop back to once a week unless it is a hot, dry summer. Remember, the shallow roots don’t travel deep into the soil for moisture; they depend on you to give them the water they need.

Mulching can help retain moisture. Use a pine-based mulch, and over time, you will also add acidity to your soil. Azaleas don’t require much maintenance, and if you decide to fertilize, there are several prepared solutions dedicated to azaleas and rhododendrons. Pruning is only necessary to control the size. I did have a 20-plus-year-old shrub that had gotten woody in the center. One spring after it finished blooming, I did a major pruning, and it came back and continued to grow and bloom for several years until there was an unfortunate incident of replacing underground plumbing.

When choosing your azalea color, keep in mind, the white blooms can be more delicate and fade faster than the other colors. I have a few with coral flowers that I bought off the bargain rack when I first moved to the little house on a big hill; they were in bad shape, and I thought I was wasting my money, but they have survived and bloomed through years.

Adding azaleas to your landscape is like adding springtime. The colorful flowers will announce that gardening season has begun and then fade into a neutral shrub for the rest of the year. Take a drive or a long walk to enjoy them while they bloom. You won’t have to look far; azaleas in Appalachia are everywhere.

Before you turn the page, a note of thanks. This column marks a milestone for me. #100! That is 100 times you have let me spend a few minutes sharing my thoughts about the garden. I am grateful. Thanks for reaching out, inviting me to your walk-through of your garden, sending pictures, gifts of cuttings from your garden, and ideas for books and movies that I might enjoy. I appreciate that you are not shy about suggestions and information you want expanded.

Thanks for being part of the first 100. You can always find past articles at www.wv or visit I hope you stick around; our garden is just beginning to blossom.