Pruning Azaleas — When & How

March 26, 2012 | By | Comments (59)

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

    Barbara,

    Always trust Grumpy.

    July 9, 2015 at 2:55 pm
  2. Barbara Bognanno

    One of my azaleas looked very poorly and didn’t produce many blooms this year. I decided it would have to be replaced. Then I saw this article of yours and gave it a severe pruning. I cut it back to 10 inches and had NO green leaves left at all. It has been almost two months and I was sure it was dead (no life showing at all). This morning I noticed tiny green shoots just beginning all over the remaining stubs. Hurrah!!!!!

    July 6, 2015 at 6:42 pm
  3. Steve Bender

    Not the gardener,

    It’s too late to prune azaleas now if you want them to bloom next spring. You can prune your roses though.

    June 24, 2015 at 7:04 am
  4. Steve Bender

    Cameron,

    It is too late now to prune if you want flowers next spring. When you do cut them back, you can cut them to roughly the same length.

    June 24, 2015 at 7:02 am
  5. not the gardener

    So, IS it too late in North Carolina? Can I prune back my naked roses now, too? There aren’t even almost any leaves on the roses – they bloomed quite a bit already. My azaleas are giants! Never been pruned for 9 ears – was worried I’d kill them.

    June 19, 2015 at 4:54 pm
  6. Cameron West

    I’m so confused! My azaleas haven’t been pruned in 4yrs due to my fear of making them ugly.I have to do something now because they are obviously leggy with some branches growing about 2ft above the plant. If I cut them only 1/3or even 1/2 of the way back,it either leaves a branch that’s still too long,or one with the 3 smaller stems that are still attached to the branch. Also, have I already waited too long(June 17) in Raleigh,NC.

    June 17, 2015 at 3:24 pm
  7. Beth satterfield

    Thanks for letting me know there’ll be no murder charges. I was doing as stated above and had a sudden notion to see if I was doing the right thing. Yea. So glad.

    April 28, 2015 at 2:54 pm
  8. Steve Bender

    Al,

    Depending on the type of azalea, it could be quite old or only about 10 years old. In any case, you can prune it back to the height you want right now. Don’t wait too long to do this or it may not bloom next spring.

    April 24, 2015 at 9:09 am
  9. Hilory Paster

    I am so sad. I have many azalea bushes that took a huge beating from the unprecedented snow fall in Massachusetts. How do I prune them to help them grow back or how do I know if they are a complete loss and need to be ripped out….:(

    April 21, 2015 at 3:52 pm

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