This is a pretty sad story. I thought so at least.
I think I might be confessing a crime here, or baring my conscience to the internet, but here goes.
I got an azalea from a website, a fair-sized operation that I won't mention the name of. The pictures looked great, and I had fantasies of beautiful blooms come springtime. It said keep it above 60 degrees, (which I figured meant I could keep it indoors) a bunch of people left reviews saying how happy they were. I was sold.
That was my first sin. I didn't know better. My conscience was unformed, so I can claim invincible ignorance.
The Azalea arrived in great shape. Nicely packed, beautiful and green, no blooms, but to be expected for August. The care instructions said water 3-4 times a week, so that's what I did.
That's right: 3-4 times per week. Invincible ignorance.
After a couple weeks I had to pack up and go to school. The azalea wasn't doing terribly, but it certainly wasn't as strong. A few leaves were withering, but I chalked it up to stress. I did a lot of reading and discovered you're not supposed to water an azalea like that. Way too much water. I checked, and sure enough, the soil was soggy. Leaves were drooping a bit more. There was still a fair amount of growth, but it was slowing down.
I cut back on watering. I let the soil nearly dry out between waterings. I bought sheer curtains so it could have "bright, filtered light." I kept my room warm, forgoing A/C for the health of the little azalea, put water in a humidity tray, and waited.
It was noticably stressed now: some leaves were turning brown starting from the outside or the tips, and more and more leaves were falling.
By this time, I had discovered the container soil discussions. I read and devoured them. I bought bark. I already had peat and perlite. I searched for granite and Turface: after three weeks, I found them. The Azalea wasn't accelerating, but was still doing poorly. The soil around the roots would be wet, almost soggy, while around the outside, it was dry-ish quickly. I had noticed quickly how hard it was to water the soil: it would just pool on top and run off, rather than soaking in, because it was so packed. Fungus gnats moved in. A couple small outbreaks of powdery mildew in the soil. I grabbed neem oil. Every 10 days, I would douse the soil in it (diluted).
By this time (1.5 months), the gravel on top had nearly all washed off, and I realized the soil was mostly loam, with a little bit of sand and some gravel and a few bits of bark thrown in.
More leaves were turning brown in the same pattern: from the tips down, curling as they went, or turning brown from the outside in. I googled symptoms. "Phytophthora Root Rot."
I got some screen. I found some skids laying around and cut them up, and made frames, and mounted the screen to them. Between classes, weekend field trips, and bunches of reading, I found time to assemble those screens and sift some bark. It was full of sapwood. I picked it out, piece by piece, vacuuming up bits of bark from the carpet in secret, with the door closed so no one would know what I was doing in my room that I have to return in good order for the next poor guy.
Finally the day came. It was the middle of October. I asked the plant manager for the key to the spigot, and a short section of hose. On Sunday, with a women's conference going on inside, I sat outside with a cart containing a big purple plastic tub (it was cheap), bags of bark, sphagnum peat, perlite, granite, shovels, buckets, pots, pliers, tape, sifting screens, a kitchen sink, and a ham and cheese sandwich. I sifted. I measured, I mixed. I plotted. I potted.
I walked back inside at least 20 times to get things from my room that I had forgotten...
After potting a couple Sanseverias in gritty mix to calm my nerves, I decided it was time.
I carefully pulled the little azalea, with a number of leaves tipped with brown now, and probably half the number of leaves it came with, out of the little bonsai pot. Half of the dirt (yes, dirt) stayed in the pot, forming a moist, compacted mass of heavy sandy mud. I groaned inwardly, and scraped it out.
Slowly, painstakingly, I picked dirt out from the roots with a bamboo skewer pilfered from the kitchen. I picked, and washed. Picked, and washed, right next to some bushes of unknown species, and a bunch of junipers that I imagined some bonsai master would be able to transform into stunning masterpieces. Or that I could probably kill in a week. Eventually, from the mass of tangled, matted roots, a picture emerged: reddish-brown root tips. Root rot.
I finished picking out mud from the roots--two hours at it, and then carefully trimmed the dead root tips, knowing it might be the last thing the poor Azalea ever felt. Then I potted it back in the same washed pot with some fresh 5-1-1 mix, watered it, and brought it back indoors to monitor it (temps in low 40's at night already).
And I waited.
It's now 4 days later. Nearly every leaf on the poor tree is dry and dying. They are turning brown from the inside out this time, usually starting along the middle vein. Not a single leaf looks untouched, although at the moment about 20% look like they could possibly survive.
I feel like I've just committed homicide. Well, herbicide. At the very least, negligent plant-slaughter. I thought I was helping! I wonder what my moral theology professor would say...
So I'm hoping to learn from this, for next time. Some questions:
In the case of root rot, should I always, or never, or just sometimes, trim the dead roots?
I thought this constituted an emergency repot: should I have waited until spring anyways?
Most importantly: is there any way I can try to save the poor azalea?