Pruning Azaleas — When & How

March 26, 2012 | By | Comments (84)

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 in  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

    Tena,
    Yes, but new ones will show up the following spring.

    November 4, 2016 at 9:29 am
  2. tena walters

    do the white bugs die when frost arrives

    November 3, 2016 at 12:06 pm
  3. Grumpy Gardener

    Diane,

    Prune back the bottom branches too.

    June 15, 2016 at 10:22 am
  4. Diane

    I cut the top of my azaleas and now the bottom is so long they are actually touching the ground. What should I do?

    June 8, 2016 at 8:21 am
  5. Grumpy Gardener

    Christine,

    Lichen is harmless, but if you don’t like the look, you can cut off the offending branches. Your azalea will grow back.

    May 24, 2016 at 1:46 pm
  6. Christine Foster

    I have lichen on my azaleas, can I cut the branches? And will they grow back free of lichen, It is making my whole flower bed look bad

    May 24, 2016 at 7:07 am
  7. Grumpy Gardener

    Deborah,

    After your azaleas finish blooming, cut them back like in the photos above. They’ll leaf out again and be fine and bloom normally the following spring.

    Kathy,

    If your azaleas are large and leggy, cut them back now to the size you want. They’ll grow back bushier.

    May 20, 2016 at 1:59 pm
  8. Kathy

    Two years ago I bought a very small zero lot line 20 year old house with a buffer area out back. There were over 25 sweet gum and loblolly pines that had taken over the bed. For the safety of my house and me, I took down most of these huge trees. Last year a few things showed up (like a lovely little dogwood and some Japanese maples). This spring I’ve discovered several old azalea bushes and a beautiful pink dogwood. These plants are now able to get sunshine, but all the azaleas are quite “woody.” I want to try your pruning ideas, but would appreciate any comments or advice. I’m sure that they’ve had no care for many years.

    May 19, 2016 at 9:43 am
  9. Deborah

    …and living in northeast where spring has been slow to arrive will I risk imperil next year’s flowers by hard pruning them now? Thanks for your feedback!

    May 17, 2016 at 5:06 pm
  10. Deborah

    Mine are decades old inherited w house. They’re shaped into boxes flowered around top. I noticed that where I cut back some branches there’s new long flowering stems. So if I cut this shrub back hard I feel like I’ll see the same thing happen. They appear quite resilient. Why kipper not chainsaw?

    May 17, 2016 at 5:03 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener

    Carolyn,

    Cut them way back, even to bare wood if you have too. They will leaf out in a couple of weeks and be fine.

    May 13, 2016 at 1:29 pm
  12. Carolyn Bowers

    I have huge azaleas that have been in front of the house for over 50 years. I have been trimming them some every year , but they are still way out of control. Do you suggest I cut them way back and let new growth begin or what should I do.

    May 12, 2016 at 10:51 am
  13. Grumpy Gardener

    Christy,

    As your plants are so small, I don’t see any reason to prune. Fertilize this spring with an acid-forming fertilizer such as Espoma Holly-tone and just let them grow.

    April 25, 2016 at 2:41 pm
  14. Christy Spradling

    I have a few of the evergreen azaleas that are really leggy and top-heavy from the flowers. The flowers are laying on the ground, so would it be a good idea to prune them once they’re done blooming to make them bushier, or just let them go? I just planted them last spring from quart-sized pots, and they haven’t grown much since then.

    April 11, 2016 at 12:30 pm
  15. SMG

    I hanks GG. I will give that a shot.

    March 29, 2016 at 9:09 am
  16. Grumpy Gardener

    SMG,

    Feed them with a good azalea/camellia plant food that contains iron and acidifies the soil. You should also invest in some deer repellent to keep the deer away or place screens around your azaleas in winter. Deer love azaleas!

    March 28, 2016 at 3:58 pm
  17. SMG

    I have a large azalea garden. The deer this winter have eaten off most of the leaves and new budlings. The azaleas are 15 years old, 3-4′ high and the branches are very dense. What can I do to give them (the azaleas not the deer 😊 ) a fresh start?

    March 23, 2016 at 5:34 pm
  18. Grumpy Gardener

    Melissa,

    Yes, now is a good time to transplant.

    Linda,

    Azaleas need to stay outside for the winter. Plant it outside this spring.

    March 9, 2016 at 11:14 am
  19. Melissa Burleson

    Can I transplant my small azaleas I planted two years ago? I think they are getting too much sun,and I planted by box shrubs that are making them had to see.Thank you for your advice.

    March 4, 2016 at 11:00 pm
  20. Linda Breitzman

    I brought my azalea plant in for the winter. Leaves are dying off.Should I do any thing so I can have it this spring and summer. Should I cut it back? Or just leave it alone.

    January 24, 2016 at 3:36 pm
  21. Steve Bender

    Christina,

    Don’t do a thing.

    November 4, 2015 at 10:55 am
  22. Christina cowan

    I bought my Azelea’s after they had already bloomed in late spring, do I need to do anything to them before winter to make them bloom nicely in spring?

    November 1, 2015 at 2:30 pm
  23. Steve Bender

    Marie,

    You might try using Bayer Advanced Tree & Shrub Insect Control.

    September 8, 2015 at 7:35 am
  24. Marie

    Can you tell me how to get the white tiny mites off of my azaleas? I’ve used the 7 dust but the leaves are still ugly

    September 4, 2015 at 12:10 pm
  25. Betty Wagener Perry

    All good advice. Thanks.

    August 6, 2015 at 1:31 pm
  26. Steve Bender

    Barbara,

    Always trust Grumpy.

    July 9, 2015 at 2:55 pm
  27. 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
  28. 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
  29. 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
  30. 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
  31. 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
  32. 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
  33. 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
  34. 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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