When & How to Prune Azaleas

May 10, 2014 | By | Comments (12)
Pruning azaleas

Photo: Steve Bender

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

Azalea murder in progress. Weapon sighted. Branches cut. Photo: Steve Bender

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.

Azalea pruning

Crime completed. Body parts collected. Neighbors horrified. Photo: Steve Bender

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

Photo: Steve Bender

See? Here are the same azaleas blooming this week. The District Attorney has decided to drop all charges.

 

COMMENTS

  1. Steve Bender

    Brenda,

    Cut through the wisteria trunk about 6 inches above the ground and then paint the cut surface with Brush Killer according to label directions.

    June 25, 2014 at 9:09 am
  2. Brenda

    Dear Grumpy,
    How can I kill Wisteria? It is taking over my yard and my azaleas and camellias!!!

    June 20, 2014 at 2:16 pm
  3. Trisha

    You should see what my husband did to some azaleas. He called it scalpturing, and it was! Surely enjoy your tips, and my husband won’t get close to those azaleas again!!! With your instructions, I will be doing it next time.

    May 30, 2014 at 7:47 pm
  4. Steve Bender

    Mollye,

    You made Grumpy’s day. :-)

    May 23, 2014 at 9:30 am
  5. Mollye

    This is my first time on this site, I love it, I am new to gardening and recently moved into a 100 year old home with lots of plants and trees I know nothing about. Thanks for the tips and for making me laugh out loud!

    May 21, 2014 at 11:00 am
  6. Steve Bender

    Slylok,
    You troublemaker :-).. I pruned all of the azaleas the same way, but the ones I showed blooming made a better picture.

    May 15, 2014 at 3:37 pm
  7. Steve Bender

    Courtney,
    Prune Encores right after they finish their spring bloom and they’ll bloom again in the fall.

    May 15, 2014 at 3:34 pm
  8. Dea

    After much “forensic” examination of the photos, it’s true. Two different before/after areas. The first two photos are of the same area before/after the haircut (okay…scalping). The third photo is of the other side of the stairs that you can see in the first two photos. But… Grumpy is right. You can actually trim 2/3 or more of your azaleas after they bloom, and they’ll come back beautifully for their next blooming. Even Encores, if you prune them immediately after they’re finished with their first bloom, will bloom a second time the same year, usually in late summer or early fall. Just be sure to prune them again right after the second blooming if they need it, but DON’T murder them. Just a clip here and there to retain that beautiful shape.

    May 13, 2014 at 3:01 pm
  9. cloresflowersblog

    Reblogged this on Clores flowers blog and commented:
    some tips for azaleas in your home garden!

    May 12, 2014 at 12:47 pm
  10. Mike Weston

    Mr Fox, I think it IS the same area. GG changed the windows. ( So he could see the “victims” better? ;)

    May 11, 2014 at 7:30 pm
  11. SlylockFox

    Why are the before and after pictures of different areas? Would love to see the flowers that are blooming where the azaleas were lopped… calling the DA for a retrial. Otherwise, great article and thanks for sharing the info.

    May 11, 2014 at 5:12 pm
  12. Courtney

    What about Encore azaleas? Do they need to be pruned, and if so, when? I recently planted 3 ‘Autumn Lily’ Encore azaleas. They’ve already bloomed once, but they should bloom again later in the year.

    May 11, 2014 at 1:21 pm

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