Some of you have been itching to prune your azaleas since last fall. While it would have been fine to do this work a month ago, most of you probably were not inclined to sacrifice this spring’s blooms to the pruning shears.
But as the blooms fade over the next couple of weeks, you can get the plants into the shape and size you want. You will take off some of this year’s new growth, but the plant should make up for this loss as spring goes on.
In the Piedmont, azaleas often outgrow their space within a few years. That is a common and good reason to prune. And fortunately, azaleas that are well-established lend themselves to rather drastic pruning and bounce back with gusto.
Other plants may require only a bit of pruning here and there to suit your eye. This typically involves stray branches that have sprung forth and now look out of place.
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Drastic pruning is also called rejuvenation pruning, meaning the plant gets cut back by about one-third. This helps to revive a flagging plant that has grown leggy, meaning few leaves are present below the tips, and the plant does not have a thick, lush quality prized in azaleas through the year. Cutting back these plants will encourage fresh growth on the remaining stems and a fuller plant. But it does not rejuvenate overnight. You must give it time.
I have even seen azaleas cut back more than one third or a half revive in time to create a fresh, lush plant. Helping this process along is the well-developed root system of a mature plant. These roots will help push the plant’s new growth, which may surprise you at how fresh and good it looks. Again, patience is required.
Rejuvenation pruning is also an opportunity to find and remove dead wood inside the plant. This should be cut out back to the base of the plant. You should assume some dead wood will be there and this is a prime opportunity to get at it.
Gentle pruning is aimed at the wayward stems. Gentle means you evaluate and cut each stem individually. Cut it back to the interior of the plant, stopping just above the junction where one stem meets another. Try not to leave any stubs. This is a nice thing to do while the plant is in bloom, as branches of azaleas look very nice in vases or water.
Another form of this gentle pruning is to gently pinch out the tips of new growth all over the plant. This encourages side growth on the stems, which should lead to a denser, more compact plant. This is a rather tedious business that should be done where it is most needed, though I know some people consider it rather therapeutic for themselves as well as the plant.