DALY: Azaleas are worthy additions to the home landscape

The use of native plants is becoming more popular since they are better adapted to the growing conditions in our area than many plant hybrids are. Among the most beautiful and interesting ones are the native azaleas.

Gardeners throughout Georgia can delight in their spectacular displays of colorful flowers in shades of red, orange, pink, and white not to mention their excellent fragrance. Often those who are not familiar with native azaleas think they are some type of honeysuckle because of the similarity of the shape of the flowers. Native azaleas are deciduous shrubs meaning they lose their leaves during the winter months. They can vary in size from less than two feet tall to species that can spread more than 20 feet and grow like small trees.

Native azaleas, like other azaleas and rhododendrons, prefer acidic soils with a pH between 5.0 and 5.5. They require higher amounts of iron, which is more available in the soil at a lower pH. The best time to fertilize the native azaleas is in the spring with a well balanced fertilizer specific for azaleas and camellias.

The plants prefer sites that are semi-shady, preferable areas that receive morning sun and shade during the afternoon. Native azaleas should be in a well-drained location since poor drainage can cause root rot diseases, thus stunting or killing the plants.

When planting in poorly drained soil, add composted organic matter to the soil, and plant the crown root ball slightly higher than ground level. Azaleas are usually pruned from just after blooming through mid July, after which they begin forming next year's flower buds. Pruning any later in the year will interfere with bud setting and will reduce the number of flowers the following year.

Native azaleas come in many colors and blooming times. They are a worthy addition to the garden. When planted and maintained correctly, they will resist pests and bring beauty to the garden like few other plants can.

Three varieties of native azaleas are available at the 2010 Annual Gwinnett County Extension Plant Sale: "Gregory Bald" which can grow to height of four feet and has flowers in varying shades of orange; "Admiral Semmes" which has fragrant, yellow flowers, is resistant to mildew, tolerates heat, and grows vigorously; "Sweet" which is a white blooming azalea with a clove-spice fragrance and has dark blue-green foliage.

If you are interested in purchasing some of these excellent plants, go online to the Extension Web site at www.gwinnettextension.org to download the brochure and order form or call the Gwinnett County Extension office for a form to be mailed to you.

The deadline for ordering is March 2. The order pick up day will be March 11 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds.

Timothy Daly, MS is an Agricultural and Natural Resource agent with the Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.