Good Azalea Care: Azaleas, Noteworthy Shrubs For Any Garden

  • Botanical name - Rhododendron spp.
  • Height - 3 to 15 feet (1-5 m)
  • Spread - 3 to 12 feet (1-4 m)
  • Sun exposure - partial or filtered shade
  • Soil type - acidic, well-drained, rich in organic matter
  • Hardiness - USDA zones 6 to 9
  • When to plant - autumn

Nothing is more beautiful than an azalea shrub in spring bloom. These easy-care shrubs come in so many colors it’s hard to find one that doesn’t suit your needs. Azaleas can be grown in nearly any garden, instantly adding interest and color to drab areas.

How to Grow and Care for Azaleas

To keep azaleas looking healthy, it is essential that you choose an appropriate spot in the landscape. Azaleas actually look the most attractive when they are planted alone. But mass plantings work well in larger areas, such as wooded sites.

Since the flower coverage on azaleas encompasses the entire shrub, placing them against a background of conifers, such as pines, or other acid-loving plants will help set off their colors and make them pop without being overwhelming.

Do Azaleas like Full Sun or Shade?

Full sun, especially in southernmost climates, can actually burn the leaves of an azalea. On the other hand, heavy shade can deprive them of necessary oxygen, resulting in poor blooming and weaker growth. Azalea shrubs perform best in partial shade or sunlight filtered by trees. They will also do well in a spot that receives morning sun followed by afternoon shade.

When to Plant Azaleas

No matter where you are, autumn is the best time to plant azaleas, because the plants can settle in during cooler temperatures. In warm locations you can plant azaleas any time of year, but spring and summer planting can be stressful. If you will be planting during a warmer time of year, provide plenty of water.

To plant an azalea, dig an area that is a little bit wider than the root ball but not deeper. When you set the roots in the hole, the top of the root ball should be a couple inches (5 cm) higher than soil level. Use a generous amount of mulch to keep moisture in the soil.

Best Soil for Azaleas

Azaleas have shallow roots and require well-drained soil. If your garden is poorly drained, consider planting azaleas in containers or a raised bed. They thrive in low pH, or more acidic, conditions. If you have high pH, or more alkaline soil, you'll need to amend your growing area. Aluminum sulfate, sulfur, coffee grounds, and pine needles are good for this. Peat moss used to be recommended, but due to environmental concerns it is no longer a good option.

It also helps to amend the soil with compost beforehand. To help conserve water, maintain soil temperature and discourage weeds, mulch these shrubs with pine straw or composted pine barks, and replenish annually. Organic matter added to the soil and an adequate layering of mulch will generally provide azaleas with sufficient nutrients, so frequent fertilizing is often not required. However, if there are low amounts of nitrogen in the soil, applying fertilizer may be necessary in order to prevent a nutrient deficiency.

Azalea Water Requirements

Do azaleas need a lot of water? Yes, especially in the first season after they've been planted. Water your new azalea regularly to help it establish strong roots. Azaleas need moist soil, so check on it throughout summer if there isn’t adequate rain. Drip irrigation is the best way to water azaleas without flooding the soil.

When to Fertilize Azaleas

Be careful with fertilizer. As a shallow-rooted plant, azalea can easily be damaged by too much fertilizer, so knowing when and how to fertilize azaleas is important. The best time is after flowering. Do not fertilize after July 1st. If you amend the soil with organic material, your azalea will not need much fertilizer. Avoid general products and choose a fertilizer designed for plants that grow in acidic soil.

When Should Azaleas Be Pruned?

Azaleas also don’t require a lot of pruning. You can trim your shrub to maintain a more compact appearance or simply to encourage bushier growth, but it isn’t strictly necessary.

Pruning azaleas is best done after they flower. You can remove suckers or any growth that is detracting from a pleasing shape. Pinch off new shoots early to improve the form of the shrub. Just avoid pinching anything off after July 1st, or you risk removing flower buds that will bloom the following year.

Common Azalea Diseases & Pests

Azalea diseases and problems do exist, though they are generally hardy and low maintenance shrubs.

Common pests that can affect azaleas include nematodes, mealybugs, aphids, bark scale, spider mites, and lace bugs. Lace bugs are more likely to target shrubs that are grown in areas of full sun.

Petal blight, leaf spots, powdery mildew, rust, and root rot are the most common azalea diseases. Planting in areas with good drainage and conserving water by applying mulch usually helps reduce the chances of fungal diseases and plant damage due to these problems.

Choosing Azalea Plants

There are several species of azalea, and also many cultivars. The choices can seem overwhelming. Start by choosing a basic type:

  • Evergreen – Evergreen azaleas keep some of their leaves over winter. These are mostly species from Japan and other parts of Asia. They have several different flower forms. A popular patented evergreen variety is the Encore azalea, which blooms multiple times in a single year.
  • Deciduous – Deciduous azaleas lose their leaves in fall. They include species native to North America, Europe, and Asia. Flowers are usually tubular.
  • Native – There are several azaleas native to North America, including Alabama, sweet, coastal, flame, and swamp azalea.
  • Non-native – Introduced azaleas are not invasive and are safe to plant in North American gardens. They include several evergreen hybrids, such as Southern Indian Glen Dale, Black Acre, and Robin Hill hybrids.

From among these options, you’ll find a range of sizes, flower forms, and colors. All azaleas share similar growing conditions and care needs. Check on hardiness for a particular species, as well as flower timing to get a series of growing season color.

Azaleas are fairly easy, low maintenance shrubs that provide striking spring color. Choose the right species and varieties for your garden, and you will enjoy these pretty plants for years to come with little effort.

Nikki Tilley
Senior Editor

Nikki Tilley has been gardening for nearly three decades. The former Senior Editor and Archivist of Gardening Know How, Nikki has also authored six gardening books.

With contributions from