Nancy Brachey

Start thinking about pruning azaleas

Despite the weather this spring, azaleas never looked better than now. It was cold, but not cold enough to cause damage and cool enough to keep blooms in good condition longer.

Right now, the azalea plants look full and dense, thanks to a lush cover of pink, red, purple or white flowers. But as soon as those are gone, gardeners will see problems and reach for the pruning shears.

The most common problem is size, and people stew about their overgrown azaleas. This is to be expected, since the Piedmont is a great climate for growing evergreen azaleas, the most popular type.

Plants that look small when bought can soon turn into larger shrubs too tall for their position beside a house or too wide for their place by a sidewalk or driveway. Fortunately, azaleas respond well to pruning. They even recover from drastic pruning, but that may take more time than you have patience to give. Gentle pruning every couple of years is much better and should produce a plant that still looks good in the landscape.

Now is the time to do this so new growth can emerge and be ready to set buds in late summer for next year’s flowers.

As you look over the plants, make a judgment about the proper height. It should be below windows. Aim to bring your plants 6 inches or so below the window sill to achieve a good proportion and give the plants some room to grow for a couple of years. Look for any dead or broken branches and get them out, too.

Azaleas growing in beds may seem too tall to suit your eye. Given an overall pruning, they should thicken up and become better-looking plants. This is especially true if they have grown leggy.

Look over the plants carefully for wayward stems that seem out of place and interfere with the overall shape of the plant. Cut these back to the interior of the azalea, stopping just above the junction where this stem meets another. Try not to leave stubs.

As you move around the plant doing this selective pruning of long or wayward stems, the height and width should improve. Then look over the plant and judge whether the height and width should be reduced more. Use hand pruning shears, not loppers or hedge shears. Trimming a few inches of stem back to the place it meets another should accomplish this. It can be tedious but not back-breaking. This type of cutting back should produce new growth along the lower stems, which will create a denser plant.

A more drastic approach involves cutting out about one-third of the plant. A well-established azalea will recover from this, but you may be unhappy with how the plant looks for a while.