Help revitalize dying azaleas

zachmatthewsMarch 18, 2010

Hey everyone -

I live in Marietta, Georgia. When we bought our house about four years ago, we had some nice azalea bushes on the west-facing front of our house. They get full sun in the afternoon. Being a first time homeowner, I didn't know what we had, so I shaped the azaleas with electric pruning shears before they bloomed that year (consequently we got no blossoms).

By the second year, I had figured out I needed to take better care of my yard and landscaping, and I'd identified my bushes as azaleas. I left them alone and they bloomed nicely (all pink, incidentally). Then came the 2008-2009 drought years. The bushes continued to bloom, but by the end of last summer, the middle of my azaleas had died back and most of the remaining bushes were rust-colored, almost like fall leaves.

I pruned out the dead sections last summer and as of now I do have some re-growth from lower down on the remaining plants that looks like it will eventually fill in the hole. The new growth is bright rhododendron green. However, all of the older limbs on the main body of my bushes are this dried, rusty color. Some smaller bushes that are not as tightly clustered with the mass actually have a green color still.

My question is, what can I do to nurse my azaleas back to green health? I have made an assumption that the bushes could be infested with either mites or fungus or both, so the other day I sprayed Malathion (which worked wonders on our adjacent juniper bushes, which had spider mites, last year), and also sprayed a copper-based fungicide. Finally, I sprinkled the ground with azalea food fertilizer, and pushed as much mulch back up around the area as I could.

So what should I do now? Adopt a wait-and-see approach? Feed again when it warms up? Prune more off? Dig them out and start over?

Thank you very much for your help,

Zach

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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

Zach, your attempts to do best for your azaleas is understood, but from what you have described, your damage is most likely caused from insufficient water and more regular water during dry periods is the only thing that will correct it.

Better to identify a problem than to apply multiple treatments and hope one works :) Spidermites will show visible webbing and insects on close inspection of leaf undersides, and fungal infections have specific symptoms too. Fertilizer will only correct low fertility and these are not shrubs with high nutritional requirements that need 'feeding' in average soil of the right ph. Never fertilize a plant stressed for other reasons, may cause more harm than good....and thats true of all plants, not only azaleas.

Any parts dead or damaged should be removed with sharp pruners so as not to offer a foothold to secondary insects or diseases. Azaleas have dormant buds all along their stems just under the bark, and should sprout from just below any cut you make. Cut back until you find live tissue. If it was drought and the top growth was damaged and the roots still healthy, they should recover even if pruned severely, assuming you can now give them regular water as needed.

These are not drought tolerant plants and will die, or parts of the plant will die, without sufficient water. You mention mulch and that's good, will help to keep the soil cool and conserve moisture.

If you have symptoms showing I haven't understood, post again, possibly with photos, and we'll start over.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2010 at 9:10PM
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zachmatthews

Thank you very much, that's very helpful. I suspect the largest part of the problem was drought; I didn't do anything to water any of my shrubs (water is expensive in Marietta and we were under a watering ban anyway for much of the drought period).

Someone at the local nursery also suggested pruning way back after this season's blooms (if any) come off. I think I am going to go that route. Now that water is more available, could you suggest a watering schedule? The bushes cover about 20 square feet and are roughly 3-4 feet tall.

I'm very familiar with wild rhododendron from fishing and hunting up on the mountains; it's clearly a water-loving species. I imagine azaleas must be at least somewhat similar.

Thanks again,
Zach

    Bookmark   March 19, 2010 at 9:33AM
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zachmatthews

Thank you very much, that's very helpful. I suspect the largest part of the problem was drought; I didn't do anything to water any of my shrubs (water is expensive in Marietta and we were under a watering ban anyway for much of the drought period).

Someone at the local nursery also suggested pruning way back after this season's blooms (if any) come off. I think I am going to go that route. Now that water is more available, could you suggest a watering schedule? The bushes cover about 20 square feet and are roughly 3-4 feet tall.

I'm very familiar with wild rhododendron from fishing and hunting up on the mountains; it's clearly a water-loving species. I imagine azaleas must be at least somewhat similar.

Thanks again,
Zach

PS This forum software is horribly awkward; you have to change the subject line to reply to a post in a thread you started?

    Bookmark   March 19, 2010 at 9:43AM
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diggerb2(z5oh)

Zach, i think you have to change the subject line because you responded to your own reponse only a few minutes after you posted-- that happens to me every once in a while too.

you might consider rain barrels to store water in for watering plants-- it will reduce your water bill all the time, but will give you a source of water during periods of drought (?) for your most precious plants.

diggerb

    Bookmark   March 19, 2010 at 3:30PM
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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

I wish I could suggest a watering schedule but it isn't quite that simple. My own garden is clay based soil, high in organic content so it drains but holds moisture...and my summer temps don't approach yours on this cool foggy coast. I water every 7-10 days without rain but my azaleas and rhododendrons are in mixed beds with other plants, some of those have even higher water requirements than azaleas do.

I would be surprised if ideal water for your azaleas in your climate would be less than once a week. Maybe someone in a warmer summer area will join in and can add to my 'guess'.

One good deep soaking will do more than more frequent shallow waterings. When too dry, the leaves should take on a bit of a dull color and may even wilt or droop some. A little of that droop on a hot afternoon is normal but if you see it in the morning, you'd better water if possible.

I understand the price of water, even ours in this rainy climate is high. But I have the luxury of only running air conditioning very rarely so can make up the difference in what I don't spend on electricity.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2010 at 7:03PM
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luis_pr

Here is a suggestion, Zach. After you make sure that the bush has an adequate supply of acidic mulch -about 3-4" up to the drip line-, I suggest that you test the soil moisture daily using the finger method. For about two weeks, insert a finger to a depth of 4" daily and determine how the soil feels. If these are large bushes, test in four different places every time. If they are small bushes, test in only one place. The idea is to get a general idea how the area under the drip line is doing.

When the soil feels almost dry or dry then water; otherwise, do nothing. Each time you water, make a note in a wall calendar. At the end of the two weeks, observe how often you watered (every 3/4/5/etc days) by looking in the calendar. Then set the sprinkler to water 1 gallon of water on the same frequency. When temperatures change 10 degrees or more and stay there, use the finger method again. You should notice that watering frequency increases as we get closer to the mid summer months and is reduced in the Fall. During winter, you can reduce watering further to once every two weeks on dry winters when the ground does not freeze. Apply 1.5 gallons of your soil happens to be sandy soil.

While testing the soil for moisture, be aware that azaleas have very shallow root systems on the top 4-6" of the soil. They do not like the roots to be disturbed much so be careful when working to add mulch, clean debris, insert fingers and stuff like that.

An adequate supply of mulch should help the shrubs quite a bit. It will reduce the frequency of your waterings. It will keep the soil evenly moist. It will protect the shrubs on windy and dry times. And it will provide food for the azaleas.

Generally speaking, if your soil does not have any mineral defficienies (determined by a soil test), you could let the azaleas feed off the decomposing mulch; no fertilizer needed. Except for an application of sulphur this time of the year, that is what I do with my shrubs. Just make a habit to add more mulch in Spring and Fall when more is needed.

Luis

    Bookmark   March 21, 2010 at 4:59PM
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