Losing my azaleas, Or: Am I a hole-digging loser?

fmogul(z6-7 NY)October 6, 2013

They say for a $10 plant, dig a $100 hole (or 10x that, adjusted for inflation). I think I do that -- producing a hole that's not too dense, not too loose, not too rich and overall just right. But I have to wonder.

I'm currently losing a pair of small azaleas I planted in the spring -- after losing a pair of rhodo's there the previous year (those at least took years to die). I think they're too far gone and at this point little will save them. I should have acted sooner, but it's been a busy summer (though not too busy to water -- just little time to do much else).

Could be the spot, of course. But the soil and light and wind exposure seem fine. Plenty of other things grow nearby, some of them moderately to very fussy in our urban setting, including cyclamen, hellebores, painted ferns, columbine. Could always be something invisible, like mold, fungus, phytophora, anthracnose, various contaminants. They could also come from bad stock that's diseased or otherwise flawed.

But here's what I wonder: when you take them out of plastic pots from the store, and they're all root-bound, I've heard two conflicting things: "gently" try to untangle the roots before planting (which never works), and this: do what you need to do, pull them apart, even use the shears, because those little roots will grow back just fine, as long as the soil is good and you water them well and don't over-fertilize.

And so, I tend to hack the roots pretty thoroughly, while still leaving a lot intact. I always feel a bit squeamish about this, but I nervously do it.

What do we think, master gardeners: could this be the problem? Should I be more gentle? Any tips for planting and dealing with those roots?

Or should I get an expensive soil test for disease, if that's even possible?

In sum: Is the fault not in my soil but in myself? Or is it more likely to be environmental conditions?

Thanks!

Fred

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jean001a(Portland OR 7b)

any chance of pictures?

    Bookmark   October 6, 2013 at 6:38PM
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akamainegrower

Without at least some description of the symptoms associated with the death of the two rhododendrons and the decline of the azaleas, any answer is pure guess work. Certainly at this point a soil test would be worthwhile.

As for the root and pot bound questions, you want to do whatever it takes to expose the root ends and disrupt the circling roots. This can vary considerably from plant to plant. My personal preference is to use a forceful stream of water, usually combined with a thorough raking with what's left of four tine cultivator. If you leave too much of the peat based potting medium, roots will be very reluctant to grow out into the new soil no matter how well prepared it may be. Once the potting media dries out, it's very difficult to rewet especially if don't water with a very gentle trickle at the plant's base rather than a wider area.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2013 at 5:20AM
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rhodyman(SE PA, USDA Z6)

You missed the three most important planting requirements: drainage, drainage and drainage.

Preparing a potted azalea for planting is described very well at RareFindNursery.com. See link below.

I always make vertical cuts with a box cutter, cutting the roots that are circling. I make at least 5 vertical cuts with the box cutter as deep as I can. In any case open up the roots but do not damage the small roots. They are the actual functional part of the roots.

Here is a link that might be useful: How To Plant (Rarefind Nursery)

    Bookmark   October 14, 2013 at 8:33AM
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