Growing Azaleas in Highlands County
Old Man Winter likes blooming plants too. There are several varieties of flowering shrubs available to homeowners here in Highlands County. The best as far as I’m concerned are azaleas. They come in every color and size you could want and are relatively low maintenance. There are even Florida Native Azaleas but they are protected and can’t be found at the nursery down the street. No matter, there are dozens to choose from and with a few precautions they will bloom in the middle of winter when everything else has turned a dusty brown.
The first consideration when planning an azalea hedge or single specimen shrub is to check the soil pH. Azaleas along with camellias prefer acidic soils in the 4.5 to 6.0 range. A higher pH will inhibit the azaleas’ ability to utilize iron in its diet. Low iron is demonstrated by a yellowing of the leaves between the leaf veins. The blooms will suffer as well. Take a soil sample of about two cups to the University of Florida’s Extension office on George Blvd. for a pH test. It costs three bucks and is done on site with the results in two to three days. The Master Gardeners who perform the test will also write out the instructions to get the soil within range of whatever you want to grow. By the way, the money goes to college scholarships for Highlands County students pursuing an agricultural program. A win-win if you ask me. Back to the pH test; if you notice a yellowing between the leaf veins…AHA….Iron deficiency, now what? Unfortunately the cure for a high pH is not as simple as a low pH. Low pH can be fixed by the addition of a slow release or granular lime application. Not so with alkaline soil or high pH, the only fix is the application of an azalea fertilizer or using sulfur to bring the soil down into the acidic range. These are only temporary fixes and will have to be repeated every few weeks. To get iron into plants, there are what’s known as foliar sprays. These are sprayed directly on the leaves and contain all the micro- nutrients the shrubs need. Again, this is only a temporary fix. Prior to planting, if a pH test shows the soil to be too alkaline I would reconsider planting an azalea and go with hibiscus, bougainvillea, or another shrub with compatible pH requirements.
Ready to plant that azalea? Dig the hole at least 12 inches wider than the root ball and deep enough so the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding soil. Backfill the hole while tamping the soil around the root ball to remove air pockets. Don’t amend the soil, just use the native soil. Using amendments has been shown to keep the roots close in to where the goodies are and they don’t want to go exploring. Using native soil gets the roots out and about. This is true for most all transplanted shrubs and trees.
Once established, pruning will help shape the azalea and promote a fuller appearance. Flower buds are usually initiated in early spring thru early summer, April-June here in Highlands County. This is long before they can be seen so cease all pruning in midsummer, July 4th is a good date to remember.
Like all plants here in Florida, there are dozens of pests to contend with on your azaleas. The most common are lace bugs, spider mites, leafminers and the azalea caterpillar. The lacewing is a tiny fly that attacks the underside of the azalea leaf and pierces and sucks the juice from the leaf veins. They are usually identified by the tiny black poo they deposit on the underside of the leaf. The topside of the leaf will have a shiny grayish appearance as the plant juice is sucked out. Spider mites will turn the leaf a blotchy rust or bronze coloration of the leaf. Horticultural soap and oil will eliminate these pests, but leafminer is a tad trickier. The larvae or worm burrows in between the upper and lower leaf surfaces so soap and oil or any other pesticide, can’t reach it. Leafminer damage is usuqally cosmetic and will go naway with cooler weather. The azalea caterpillar is a voracious nibbler of azaleas. Hand picking and stomping on them is the best way but a dusting of Bt, a bacterial good-guy that turns caterpillars to mush is effective as well. Brighten up your winter with a few azaleas, you’ll be glad you did.
Written by Highlands County Master Gardener Volunteer : Charlie Reynolds on 12/7/2016
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