I prune my azaleas but they grow back ugly

wasabi_VA(7)March 8, 2006

I prune my azaleas once a year, not long after they shed their blooms. I kinda hate to do this because they look so thin and leafless but I've been told that is when I need to prune. But by next Spring they have grown back with numerous long branches - not an even growth. They just look ratty but I don't clean them up for fear of cutting off the new blooms that are setting. But right now (winter) they really look like they need trimming again. They will just look ratty this spring as they do every year. I just wish I could get a nice round bush shape.

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meldy_nva(z6b VA)

Some azaleas are just naturally more 'leggy' than others; but more often it happens they are in a bit too much shade and stretch out, trying to reach sun.

In the hopes that neither of those scenarios is your problem, try another session of pruning. Right now, go ahead and prune out any branch that is rubbing on another, and cut back any branch that is truly dead (a living branch flexes a bit when gently bent, dead ones usually snap off). Next session should be just after the blossoms get really ratty-looking. And don't worry about the forming buds: most azaleas spend about a month gradually making tiny new buds within the new cluster of leaves. Stand back and eye-ball the plant, trying to visualize the more rounded shape you want... I have trouble with this, so I use ties (from bread wrappers), twisting them on each branch where I think the cut should be, and then standing back to eye-ball again (and again, usually); neighbor uses cloth strips which actually are easier to see. Once the ties look like the general size and shape I hope for, I cut about 4" closer to the plant's center than the tie actually is. This is because over the following weeks the azalea is going to grow a cluster of small branchlets from that cut end. Azaleas are real nice about doing this :) but keep an eye on them for a few weeks after pruning: if you do find a cut end that's making a single instead of a cluster, try pinching off the green tip; that's usually enough to make the following new growth a cluster.

Bushes that are basically a nice shape, but loaded with dead cluster-twigs need an in-depth pruning - expect to prune about 20% of the branches all the way back to a main trunk. I've found those masses of dead clusters seem to occur on bushes that have been "surface-pruned" often to maintain a particular shape or size [that's a nice way of saying somebody used hedge clippers instead of pruners]; the plants need to be opened up a bit both to let air and light in, and because the plant had so many cut ends that it made more tip-clusters than it could maintain over the winter, resulting in a sparse bloom. Try to remove some of the branches which have clusters leaning into any other branch's clusters - at least one branch [of every bunch] will need to be pruned back to the main stem. The finished effect doesn't change the plant's shape by much, but it does make the overall effect more open. Surprisingly, next year's blooms will likely be very showy!

I have never managed to prune so severely that an azalea died (ah, yeah, I've tried... got an orangey one I really detest so I've practiced doing all sorts of "wrong" things to it); so you can expect that an established azalea is one plant that is difficult to over-prune -- although if you want to shorten the overall height and/or width by more than a third, there is a good chance some of the individual branches will die back a lot. No sweat, just prune them off next spring (sometimes they look dead in late summer but come to life the following spring, so give 'em a chance). Next year, you can refine your prunings... if the plant is a hearty grower, you may want to cut back 6" or a foot closer to center than looks good when eye-balled; or if there are some branches which act determined to be leggy, you can lop a couple off about a foot above ground-level. You can also divide the pruning sessions over about a month after bloom -- this is handy when you actually want to a very severe pruning (the rule of thumb is no more than 1/4 taken off at one time) because you can take a 1/4 off right after blossom-drop and a month later (those cut ends will have little leaves) take another 1/4 off! If you do something that drastic, don't forget to take good care of the remains, being sure to water often during the summer and feed with a mild azalea fertilizer.

The final resort for plants that are really ugly, and not too shaded, and you aren't going to get too upset if they die -- is to cut the entire plant back to about a foot above ground level. Like a normal pruning, some/most cut ends will sprout clusters; unlike a normal pruning, some/many branches may die completely and there is a very real risk of losing the whole plant (or so I'm told, I haven't had it happen to any of my azaleas). The good part of taking the risk is that it's easier to keep the plant bushy as it recovers/grows, the bad part is that there is no way to tell just which branches will die back, so there is a potential for having a lop-sided plant for a couple years.

wow! I didn't mean to be so long-worded; it's just easier to do the pruning than it is to tell how to do pruning!

    Bookmark   March 8, 2006 at 1:25PM
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You can prune out those long branches nearly any time of year. Just cut them down a little below the general size of the shrub and it will neaten them up quite a bit. Don't shear, just selectively prune. I have several in a sidewalk border that would have eaten the sidewalk and front of my house if I hadn't kept them severely pruned over the years. Every fall I spend some time taking out those long straggly branches to neaten them up for the winter and they are beautiful in the spring. Due to the type of pruning I do after bloom time, they are a more formal type shape than normal for azaleas but it works in this particular spot. I probably should move them to the edge of the woods border but I'm too lazy. They are about 15 years old and would require many hours of back breaking work to move. Maybe someday...


    Bookmark   March 11, 2006 at 1:14AM
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Thanks meldy and sandy!

I historically have used hedge clippers - guilty as charged!
I do not feed regularly - I can change that. And I will prune by hand too. These plants don't get too much shade, nor too much sun. These are pictures I took yesterday and the plants were pruned last Fall! They show how sparse the new growth is. These bushes should be full of new growth, but appear like they will not even have a lot of leaves much less blooms.

My goal right now is to get them green and lush looking as they just don't look very healthy right now.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   April 5, 2006 at 9:03AM
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lkaa(z7 NOVA)

In the first post, you mentioned you pruned right after bloom, but in this last post you said in the fall. Are they spring blooming? When in the fall did you prune? Pruning in the fall might be the biggest part of the problem if they are spring blooming. By pruning in the fall, you just cut off all of that years growth and the following years blooms, hence the scraggly, leafless look. And hand pruning will help keep a more natural look as you can clip, step back and look to make sure you got the right cut. If you are looking for a shrub that has a nice, uniform shape that is more formal, azaleas may not be the right plant. They are meant to be looser and more natural.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 11:18AM
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You are right - I was inconsistent. I pruned them after Spring blooming last year - that I am sure. Now I am fuzzy on if I also pruned them again in the Fall for looking leggy.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2006 at 1:26PM
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DWA in AZ Sunset zone 12(9a Tucson AZ)

Here's a link to a helpful Southern Living article, with illustrations:

    Bookmark   April 17, 2006 at 7:40AM
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