Garden Q&A: Loosen roots before replanting
Question: We have three azalea bushes in our front yard that (to my uneducated eye) do not look like they are thriving. We planted them three years ago and they are in full sun most of the day. The azaleas have not bloomed since we planted them, and the leaves are reddish brown. I have not fertilized them and I have not pruned them either. I'm wondering if it takes several years for them to start to bloom.
My husband dug up one of them to try to troubleshoot and found that the roots have not expanded much. My mother-in-law says that the plant is root-bound. Is that true?
Please help. My husband wants to throw them away, and I don't want to waste the money that we spent on them. I've included some pictures for your review.
Answer: From your photos, I can see that you have several different issues affecting the health of your azaleas.
First and foremost, whenever you plant container-grown trees, shrubs and perennials, it is absolutely critical that you loosen the roots before planting, especially if they are circling within the pot (what your mother-in-law properly referred to as root-bound). Use your fingers or a knife to cut or untangle the roots and spread them out in the hole. Do not, however, completely destroy the root ball; simply loosen up the outer roots.
Secondly, if you look closely at the top side of the leaves, you'll notice they are dappled with pale green/yellow. This, in combination with the black “tar spots” I noticed on the undersides of the leaves, is a clear sign of an infestation of lacebugs. These insects are quite typical on azaleas, particularly those grown in full sun conditions.
Azaleas are understory plants and much prefer shade to part-shade. Planting them in full-sun is rolling out the welcome mat to all sorts of problems, including lacebugs. Consider relocating your azaleas to shadier digs, and you won't have to deal with lacebugs.
And thirdly, azaleas prefer acidic soil conditions. Here in Western Pennsylvania we have naturally acidic soils, but they often aren't quite acidic enough for needled- and broad-leaved evergreens such as azaleas.
Fertilizing each bush with a cup of acid-specific granular fertilizer (HollyTone is my personal favorite) every year or two is a good idea. Do not do this, however, right after they are planted or moved. Wait until a few months later to fertilize or you risk burning newly developing feeder roots.
Keep all newly planted trees and shrubs well-watered for at least a full season, especially during the winter months when rainfall may be at a minimum. Drying winds can quickly desiccate broad-leaved evergreens like azaleas and rhododendrons.
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.
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