Pruning Azaleas — When & How

March 26, 2012 | By | Comments (37)

Pruning azaleas 005
The azaleas in front of Grumpy’s palace are in full bloom now and looking glorious. But they wouldn’t be if they hadn’t been pruned at the right time. They’d be boring, green blobs. Here’s how to prune azaleas correctly and avoid the state of green blobness so prevalent in our neighborhoods.

What to Prune

There are two classes of azaleas – native azaleas and Asian azaleas. Native azaleas, sometimes called “wild honeysuckle” for their fragrant blooms with long stamens, are deciduous. They never need pruning, so the rest of this epistle is not about them.

Asian azaleas are the evergreen ones almost everyone in the South, including yours truly, feels compelled to plant. They come from Japan. Within this class, there are two popular groups. Kurume hybrids, like ‘Coral Bells,’ ‘Hino Crimson,’ and ‘Hershey’s Red,’ are dense, compact plants with small, glossy leaves, that grow 3-4 feet high. They bloom early and the flowers nearly hide the foliage. The seond class are called Southern Indian hybrids. They grow at least twice as large and much faster than the Kurumes and aren’t as dense. They also bloom about 1-2 weeks later and aren’t quite as cold-hardy, so you see them mostly from the Carolinas south. ‘George Taber’ (pink), ‘Formosa’ (purple), and ‘Mrs. G.G. Gerbing’ (white) are popular varieties.

When to Prune

Timing is critical if you want your azaleas to bloom next year. The best time to prune is within a three week period after they finish blooming in spring. This gives the azaleas plenty of time to make flower buds for next year. If you prune in summer or fall, you’ll cut off the flower buds and assure green blobness next spring.

How to Prune

DO NOT (repeat) DO NOT USE HEDGE TRIMMERS to shear azaleas into tight boxes. This looks awful and results in foliage and flowers that exist only on the outer inch of the shrubs. Instead, use mostly hand pruners. Reach inside the shrub and cut back branches to slightly different lengths to create a cloudlike, mounding shape. Loppers may be necessary to prune thick branches. Kurume hybrids grow much slower than Southern Indian hybrids and usually require pruning only once in 4-5 years. Southern Indians grow fast and depending on where they’re planted, may need it every year.

Drastic Measures I Confess To

When Grumpy bought his palace many years ago, the first thing he did was rip out the cheapo $1 shrubs the builder planted in front and replace them with 6 small ‘George Taber’ azaleas. He pruned them with hand pruners every spring after blooming. They grow so vigorously, however, that eventually they’d grown up to the dining room windows and the branches were too thick to cut with hand pruners. Drastic action was required.

Pruning azaleas 001Azalea murder inĀ  progress. Weapon sighted. Branches cut.

As your hero and mentor, it pains me to say this, but Grumpy resorted to azalea murder. The azaleas needed to be reduced in size by half. This required loppers. I cut back the thickest branches first. I showed no mercy.

Pruning azaleas 002Crime completed. Body parts collected. Neighbors horrified.

Yes, I knew my azaleas were going to look awful. In fact, after pruning they looked like butchered sticks. But here’s the cool thing about evergreen azaleas. Unlike many shrubs, you can cut them back beyond the foliage to bare wood. In a couple of weeks, the bare sticks will leaf out fully and no one will know that you pruned.

Pruning azaleas 003
This is how my George Tabers looked just a few days ago as they just started blooming. No green blobness at Grumpy’s house.

Pruning azaleas 007
And here’s how they look today. The District Attourney has decided to drop all charges.

COMMENTS

  1. Steve Bender

    Heidi,
    It’s too late to prune azaleas without cutting off the flowers for next spring. The best time to prune is immediately after they finish blooming. You can cut them back as far as needed.

    August 8, 2014 at 10:49 am
  2. Heidi

    Dear Grumpy,

    On March 11 on a warm day in Maryland, I removed some other shrubs and had my poor overgrown and misshapen azaleas cut way back to uncover my front porch. It wasn’t a careful job, but they bloomed nicely and have regrown leaves all over the previously light-starved lower branches. My plan was to wait until after blooming and then do another big cutting back.

    Now it’s August 3rd, and if I’m reading this right, I have waited too long to do any further pruning, drastic or otherwise. Can I take them way down and reshape them again next March? Or will I be cutting off all the new buds that have been growing since the 4th of July? When were the pictures of your murderous crime taken–the year before the lovely blooms? Thanks for your not-very-curmudgeonly advice…

    Heidi

    August 3, 2014 at 5:31 pm
  3. Steve Bender

    Anne,
    Don’t prune your azaleas from now until after they bloom next spring or you’ll be cutting off flower buds.

    July 31, 2014 at 11:36 am
  4. Anne Gardner

    I trim med my azaleas as directed right after they bloomed. They have shot up new shoots and now look like I’m not keeping my yard tidy, as I am reluctant to trim them like the other bushes. Should I trim the top shoots, or will that inhibit the bushes from flowering next spring. Help. Thanks. Anne G.

    July 19, 2014 at 7:28 pm
  5. Steve Bender

    Lisa,

    Good for you! Stick to your guns!

    June 23, 2014 at 3:34 pm
  6. Lisa

    I did this very job the other day on two 13 yr. old Korean-type evergreen azaleas that had a mass of thick sprouts coming from the ground where the bottom branches had re-rooted, partly due to an an armodillo that had dug a hole under the base of one shrub, as well as the many crossing branches that made the shrubs look too dense and crowded. And yes, mine too were getting too large for their spot. With loppers and small pruning shears and protective eyewear I removed crossing branches and shortened leggy growth as well as removed the mass of small plants coming up from the base that had formed roots from lower stems touching the ground. A corn hoe worked well for this last job. I had to laugh at this blog as my husband also thought I was doing more harm than good, but after I was done, they looked like they could breath and put out some new growth that I can more easily control in the future. After pruning I gave them a dose of azalea fertilizer.
    I enjoyed this grumpy gardner blog and it made me laugh, as well as my husband.

    June 19, 2014 at 4:43 pm
  7. Steve Bender

    Carrie,

    You could try to transplant them now, but given their size and the time of year, I don’t think they’ll survive the move. You’re better off throwing them away and planting something that’s low-growing after the remodeling is done.

    May 17, 2013 at 9:39 am
  8. Steve Bender

    Martha,

    Try spraying your hibiscus according to label directions with hot pepper wax spray. It has no smell, but boy, it tastes hot! You can order it online from Biconet . GG

    May 17, 2013 at 8:52 am
  9. Carrie Dusch

    I have azaleas that were in place before I bought my house. They seem to be different types and are all different colors. But they get HUGE, I have cut them down to knee height twice and they still come back nearly to my gutters!! However, whoever planted them did so WAY too close to the house. We are planning on doing some remodeling soon and will probably need to move them from their current location. I was wondering if it was at all possible to salvage them in any way. Will most likely dig them up as best as possible and yank them out with our truck…but can they take that kind of punishment and come back in another location? Any advice on getting it done?

    May 13, 2013 at 8:31 am
  10. How To Grow Azaleas – The Daily South | Your Hub for Southern Culture

    [...] When to Prune Most azaleas bloom on flower buds made the previous year. Prune them shortly after they finish blooming in spring. If you prune in summer or fall, you won’t get flowers the following spring. Rebloomers like the Encores, however, bloom on both last year’s growth and the current year’s. If you need to prune them, do so soon after the spring bloom. You’ll get flowers in fall and again the next spring. Read more information about pruning azaleas. [...]

    April 29, 2013 at 11:12 am
  11. Steve Bender

    Nikki,

    Your experience proves that no harm comes from pruning at the right time!

    April 24, 2013 at 8:51 am
  12. Nikki

    In case anyone’s interested, I have a house with 60+ years-old azaleas surrounding my front porch. They are the same color as those in the photo on this page. In front of Grumpy’s house? I have pruned them mercilessly over the past twenty years and they always bloom beautifully as long as they are pruned right after they bloom. About seven years ago I even skinned them to the bone from the height of four-five feet down to a foot or so tall. They had no leaves on them when I was finished, just little stalks sticking out of the ground. I did this because they were looking spiny and I wanted leaves to be on them close to the ground. Sure enough, within a month or two they were filled out, yet, of course, quite short. And then they grew from there into lush, healthy bushes again.Those things are so loyal!

    April 23, 2013 at 9:28 pm
  13. Lee

    Thanks, Steve. I figure I’ll start off with ones that aren’t as visible and give this a shot!

    April 14, 2013 at 6:51 pm
  14. Steve Bender

    Lee,
    Here’s what I would do. Every year for the next 3 years, prune back 1/3 of the branches to the height you want right after they bloom. Sprinkle some slow-release, acid-forming fertilizer like Holly-tone around the plants after you prune.They’ll look naked for a few weeks, but will quickly cover themselves with foliage and bloom the following year. After 3 years, you’ll have bushy plants the size you want.

    March 29, 2013 at 10:32 am
  15. Lee

    Steve, we have the largest azaleas that I have ever seen. My father, a botanist, cultivated literally hundreds of azaleas on the property that we inherited some years ago. He didn’t believe in pruning the azaleas much, if ever, so a significant percentage are 10-15′ tall with huge trunks (I hesitate to call them branches). Many of the lower branches are dying now, so I’ve spent a lot of time removing them. However, I’m afraid that there is so little foliage on the lower parts, that if I prune them there will just be stalks left. These azaleas are mostly 40-50 years old. Do I just have to remove the biggest ones or is there any hope for cutting them back and having them survive?

    March 21, 2013 at 6:53 pm
  16. Polina

    Thank you Steve.

    March 3, 2013 at 7:12 pm
  17. Steve Bender

    Polina,
    You’re looking at the two most popular classes of evergreen azaleas. The big, open ones are called Southern Indian hybrids. They grow big, have large flowers, and are the second ones to bloom. The dense ones are Kurume hybrids. They grow half as big, have smaller but more flowers, and bloom earlier. Care is the same for both.

    March 3, 2013 at 1:43 pm
  18. Polina

    Does anyone know why some azaleas that I see around town (North Florida) are very dense and have a definite shape, while others are kind of “bold” looking, no shape, no density – sparse branches with rare flowers.
    Are these different kinds or just differently cared for?
    Thank for any help!

    March 1, 2013 at 8:03 am
  19. Are You Ready For Spring? – The Daily South | Your Hub for Southern Culture

    [...] That depends on the plant. If it blooms in the spring on growth made the previous year (azalea, lilac, forsythia, spirea, loropetalum, ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangea, Lady banks rose, etc.) [...]

    January 31, 2013 at 9:00 am
  20. Tom

    Thanks Steve

    October 10, 2012 at 2:38 pm
  21. Steve Bender

    Tom,
    Believe it or not, they should come back if nothing else happens to them.

    October 10, 2012 at 10:51 am
  22. Tom

    Anyone!

    My neighbor just cut (Oct 2012) 50-60 year old azaleas to the ground that I’ve been the beneficiary of for decades. They just bought the house and I don’t believe they got good counsel.

    My question is will they come back or are they now vulnerable to the winter and bug infestation?

    October 10, 2012 at 8:19 am
  23. Steve Bender

    Cora,
    Yes, you can grow azaleas in containers, but they’ll need more care than ones grown in the ground. When it’s hot and dry, you must water frequently to keep the soil moist. Otherwise, they’ll fry. Don’t prune any branches until you’re sure they’re dead.

    September 30, 2012 at 6:41 am
  24. cora

    can azaleas be kept in containers? I leave in Los Angeles and have a “California Pink Bubble azalea” that I planted in a large pot it’s been there for a few years now and bloomed every spring ,and this summer has been a struggle , 3 weeks of temp in the 3 digits,for it burned all the leaves and struggling to bring out new shoots, should I prune it or leave it alone? It look too brown and pathetic w/ new green tips showing.

    September 29, 2012 at 5:13 pm
  25. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Leslie,
    I wouldn’t give up on the Encores yet. One thing is that they need more sun than the average azalea. If you plant them in shade, they don’t bloom as much. Bloom-a-thon is a Proven Winners plant, available at places like Home Depot and Lowe’s.

    April 7, 2012 at 7:30 am
  26. Donna

    I just wish they would live long enough in our climate and soil conditions to get a pruning. I would love to see them look like your shrubs.

    April 3, 2012 at 8:20 am
  27. Leslie

    I am very disappointed in my purchase of Encore Azaleas. I planted them last fall, followed the instructions on the website on soil prep and out of40 plants, only got blooms out of 12. Do you know where I can get the new Bloom a Thon Azalea? Is it an Encore? I live in Athens, GA

    April 2, 2012 at 9:14 am
  28. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Freda,
    From my experience, Encores bloom more heavily in fall than in spring. So I’d prune them soon after they finish their spring bloom.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm
  29. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Diane,
    Here are the basics. Azaleas need acid, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter in it. They like light shade in the afternoon, but won’t bloom in deep shade. Cold-hardiness is also a factor for you. When you go to the garden center, ask the salesperson for names of azaleas that do well in your area. Also ask how big they grow. Then pick out the color you like. It’s best to pick them out in bloom, so you can make sure you’re getting the color you want.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm
  30. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Sara,
    George Tabers commonly produce all-purple branches. This is where purple ‘Formosa’ came from.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm
  31. Moving Quotes

    Your azaleas look amazing. With the Masters golf tournament coming up, I hope you keep an eye out for all the great azaleas that will be on TV. Seeing the azaleas at Augusta National is the reason we invested in HD tv last year.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm
  32. my results place

    I have Encore Azaleas and they bloom in both the spring and fall and for a very long time. They fit the space (so far), but do you have advice for pruning…should the need ever arise?

    March 28, 2012 at 4:15 am
  33. Vera

    I let our azaleas get out of hand too. So over the course of 3 years, I’ve pruned 1/4 off. I was afraid to murder them by 1/2. But the desired height is taking forever! It’s torture – or munchausen by proxie. It looks as though I should have just bit the bullet that first year and called it an act of passion.

    March 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm
  34. Freda Cameron

    I have Encore Azaleas and they bloom in both the spring and fall and for a very long time. They fit the space (so far), but do you have advice for pruning…should the need ever arise?
    Thanks,
    Freda

    March 26, 2012 at 7:56 pm
  35. Dianne

    Good Morning. Thinking of azaleas for the front of my house (north with brief sun) here in Southest Missouri. Just don’t know anything about them. Neighbors have some white ones in a similar light and soil situation which seem successful. Any advise for the inexperienced Azalea (I can’t even spell it) person?

    March 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm
  36. Jean

    In the south we tend to not even think about putting pruning shears to our beautiful azaleas! I have seen people with a modern slant to gardening prune them into a box. NOT GOOD! Looks like I am going to have to put Grumpys pruning in place for my Indian hybrids. They are taking over. So far just a few blooms.

    March 26, 2012 at 10:58 am
  37. Sara D

    my 16 yr old George Tabers are in full bloom. For the past three years there is just one shrub branch that blooms bright magenta – I think the Clemson extension office called it a sport of the reddish-pink flowered ‘Omurasaki’ azalea. Is that common?

    March 26, 2012 at 9:04 am

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