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Garden Q&A: Azalea may not survive winter

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

Q: I just received an azalea plant as a gift for my mother-in-law's passing. I am thinking that it is too late to plant it. Correct? If so, what should I do with it over winter so that it doesn't die and I can plant it in spring? Thanks for your advice.

A: Unfortunately, there is a good chance your azalea won't make it. Florist's azaleas are grown in greenhouses and forced to bloom out of their traditional flowering season. More often than not, the plant is unable to survive because of the amount of energy required to force it to bloom. This is true of many flowering plants, including hydrangeas and bulbs such as tulips and hyacinths that are tricked into blooming when nature didn't intend them to.

Add to that the fact that most florist azaleas are not the same winter-hardy varieties growing in our yards and gardens, and you've got a very small chance of success. But, I have seen it happen. You never know and you have nothing to lose in trying to see it safely through winter.

Keep the plant indoors. Put it in a bright, cool location but not in direct sunlight. Water it whenever the pot feels light and dry (about every seven to 10 days) by removing the foil or basket around the pot and placing the entire plant in the sink. Fill the sink with water and let the pot sit immersed in water for a good five minutes. Then drain the sink and allow the pot to drain until water no longer runs out of the holes. Once it is drained, you can put the pot back into the foil or basket.

I suggest you grow it as a houseplant until spring and then, after the danger of frost has passed in mid-May, repot the azalea into a large, decorative pot using a high-quality potting mix. Put the container on a shaded or semi-shaded patio and enjoy it through summer. Fertilize the azalea once every four to six weeks with a granular or water-soluble organic fertilizer formulated specifically for evergreens. Come next fall, if you are interested in overwintering it again, move the pot indoors and continue to grow it as a houseplant.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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