AzaleaNothing signals springtime more than azaleas in the South. Grown in Florida for just the last 75 years, these shrubs bloom for three to four weeks and are among the prettiest plants in the spring. They need both sun and shade, filtered sun working the best. The shade produces great foliage, but the sun is needed for the flowers.

Healthy azaleas that are taken care of properly can be covered with blossoms. An unhealthy azalea is sparse, leggy, suffering from dieback and has little or no flowers.

What makes a healthy azalea? They need good rich soil, regular watering and light, shifting shade. And, by far the most important is the soil because azaleas will not grow in the sand. Cow manure, peat humus, landscape soil mixes (usually available at a local nursery) will all do the trick. Whatever amendment you choose, thoroughly mix it with the existing soil at a 1:3 ratio. The shrub also needs an acid soil, but adding organic material will provide this. As organic matter decomposes, it produces an acid soil. However, still fertilize with specific azalea food designed to add acidity to the soil along with the fertilizer.

Most experts recommend feeding azaleas twice a year - once after the spring flowering and once again in May or June. However, most of my neighbors fertilize oftener, 4 times a year at least. They have the most gorgeous azaleas and they've been blooming for weeks now. I usually fertilize in March, May and September.

When planting azaleas from their container, cut an X in the bottom of the roots and loosen them so they know to spread out and grow. More shrubs have died off because even with adequate watering, their roots are in a knot and can't break loose and spread.

Keep azaleas moist. The most critical time for moisture is right after you've added them to your landscape. Water very faithfully in the early stages. Once established, they should do fine with a thorough watering a couple times a week. Be sure and add a good thick layer of mulch, too. Watering is so important because azaleas have a shallow fibrous root system that sits just below the soil surface. When weeding, be careful you do not damage these tender roots.

The time to prune azaleas is right after they finish blooming. Don't prune them after July, though, because you'll be removing the new growth that will provide the flowers next spring. I pruned all my azaleas more than usual this May because they had dropped a lot of their leaves due to the drought in Florida. However, I am hooked up to a reclaimed watering system, so have watered the plants more than usual. They've grown back thick and look very good.!

My azaleas are clumped together by color. The whites are on the east side of the house so they get afternoon shade. The cherry reds are also on the east side, and the two groups are divided by a screened patio. Two large lavendar shrubs grow on the west side of the house where they get filtered sun.

February 2002 - I bought two Sun Glow azaleas from Rockledge Gardens for the west side of the house. They will get some shade from a 3-year-old oak tree. They are a long-blooming variety.