Help with how to rejuvenate old neglected azaleas

donnaroeMay 10, 2013

We planted these azaleas at the edge of our woods about 20 years ago. They are a Girard type red color. When we bought them, they were an un named variety. These azaleas bloomed pretty nicely for the first few years. Gradually, they have been going down. We have not pruned them, fed them, or cared for them. They have been been partially eaten by deer. One is is pretty bad shape- only a foot or so of the original plant is present- the branches have either been eaten, or have been knocked off. The other ones (3) are about 4 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. I don't know where to start with trimming them. Should I drastically trim them, or just take out what doesn't look to be alive? I should also mention that we have a deer problem here (we made the mistake of starting to feed then about 5 years ago), so I know we will have to spray these with deer repellant after we do all of our work on them.
I have made a decision to try and save them. My husband wants to dig them out and discard them. I plan to clear away vegetation around them, and then to keep it clear. How should I go about improving the ground around them? Would it help to top dress the area with composted manure? (We are going to pick up a large load of it tomorrow, to add to our vegetable beds. Would this be alright to work into the soil around the azaleas? I also have azalea food that you mix with water in my garage, and a pretty good supply of osmocote. These plants did not deserve to be neglected, and I want to do what is right for them. I can take photos and post them, if it is necessary to see them before you answer. Just let me know! Thanks in advance.

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Composted manure is usually too high in nitrogen. It will stimulate vegetative growth at the expense of blooms and balanced nutrition. It may also be too alkaline for plants that need acid soil and nutrients available in a form that azaleas can absorb.

I'd also avoid the two chemical fertilizers you mention. The water soluable kind provides a quick shot but no long term feeding. Osmocote only releases its nutrients when soil temperatures are quite warm.

Partially decomposed conifer bark is the best bet for mulching and long term feeding. If you can find it mixed with compost, so much the better. A small amount of HollyTone will likely help if you're using straight bark.

Prune back into live wood and see what develops. You can always prune more as long as you stop before the end of June.

It is going to be a real challenge to keep deer habituated to this snack away from the azaleas. Some sort of fencing may be needed for a while.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2013 at 6:22AM
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Thank you, maingrower. I appreciate your answer. Do you think I should lightly cultivate around the azaleas, and work something into the soil around them? (I know they have shallow roots). We have some areas where large pines have been and still are, on our property. There is a pretty good layer of pine needles, and I am sure the ground under them would lean toward the acid side, too. Would the needles or the acid soil be of any benefit? I think I may have some HollyTone.
Also, when we are pruning back into live wood, would I use my pruners to scrape the bark to find the area which is alive? I don't want to damage them any more than necessary.
If the manure is composted with sawdust, would it be any better? We picked up a load yesterday, and it comes from a cattle farm where I am sure they use sawdust in the stalls. Thanks for all your answers.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2013 at 9:13AM
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The pine needles, especially if you include some of the partially decayed ones below the surface layer, would be just about perfect as a mulch and acidifier. Don't cultivate around the azaleas - it's just too easy to unintentionally damage the roots. Instead, add three or four inches of the pine needles, keeping them back from the azaleas' trunks. Earthworms and other soil organisms will quickly incorporate it into the soil and make the nutrients available to the plants. A very conservative sprinkling of HollyTone put down before the mulch is probably a good idea.

The composted manure sounds as if it would be great for vegetable gardens and many types of flowers, but it's not suitable for azaleas for the reasons above and you've got a much better resource in the pine needles.

Your thumbnail is the best tool for scraping a bit of the bark away to check for green cambium.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2013 at 5:40AM
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Thank you for your additional answers, main grower. I totally understand what we have to do. I am starting today, as it is very cool out, and it will be a good day to clear the infringing bushes away. Thanks again.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2013 at 1:26PM
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