Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, January 16, 1998

Blooming azaleas

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Potted azaleas display their blossoms at Star Garden Shop. The color range for the flowers include red pink, lavender, salmon, orange, yellow and white.

The appearance of their colorful flowers in garden shops is a harbinger of spring

THIS is the time of year when snowbound mainland gardeners pore over nursery catalogs, dreaming of cosmos and gazanias, asparagus and strawberries, things to plant when the ground thaws. Proving that one man's weed is another man's flower, the current Park Seed catalog is selling lantana and sweet potato vine in 3-inch pots, three for $12.95. Many local gardeners would pay that to have someone pull them out.

But one sign of oncoming spring is the appearance of potted azaleas in Honolulu garden shops. Closely related to the rhododendron, which doesn't grow well in Hawaii except in places like Kula on Maui or Waimea on the Big Island, azaleas do well here.

Azaleas and rhododendrons are members of the same plant group and are at their best in mild, humid climates. Rhododendrons, however, require full protection from the afternoon sun and from wind, while azaleas are more adaptable. In hot, low areas of the island, azaleas should be placed where they receive full sun only in the morning. In higher areas or in the valleys, azaleas can take full sun. If the plant doesn't seem to be doing well where it is located, azaleas are easily and safely transplanted. They seem to be more successfully moved when in flower than when dormant.

The azalea most often sold here is the Satsuki-tsutsuji, a native of Japan where it is mass planted and clipped into rounded forms to suggest huge stones. Here, when used as landscaping, it is usually planted as a small foliage shrub, singly or in clumps as a color accent. But more often, azaleas are used as container plants for the beauty of their flowers.

Azaleas are at the peak of their bloom now, since they flower from early winter through early spring. The color range includes red, pink, lavender, salmon, orange, yellow and white. Some grow very close to the ground, other varieties grow to 12 feet. The leaves are small, short stemmed and deep shiny green, so the plant is attractive even when not in flower. Azaleas, particularly as potted plants, grow very slowly.

When buying plants for landscaping, choose those that are sturdy, well-branched and at least 10 inches tall so that they will already be established. Plant them in well-drained soil that has a high content of organic matter. If you are planting azaleas in your garden, they will do best on the north and east sides of the house where they are protected from the hot afternoon sun. If you plant them where they have southern or western exposure, they will need more frequent watering.

AZALEAS and rhododendrons require an acid soil. If you don't know the acid content of your soil, have it tested by one of the County Extension Offices of the University of Hawaii. They are listed at the bottom of the third column on Page 14 of the Hawaii State Government section of the Oahu telephone directory. You can buy an inexpensive testing kit at most garden shops and do it yourself, but you'll get better answers from the professional county extension officers.

The normal pH range for azaleas is 4.5 to 6.0. The pH factor refers to the level of acidity or alkalinity of the soil on a scale of 1 to 10, starting with the greatest acidity and going up to the highest alkalinity. The neutral number is 7.0, so these plants require a fairly acid soil. Adding peat moss will increase soil acidity. It will also improve the water holding capacity of sandy soil and the drainage of clay soil. There are also chemicals available to change the pH factor.

Azalea roots grow close to the surface, and they require air in the root zone so a loose organic soil is important. They also require frequent watering, but the water must drain through. Poor drainage results in root rot, which produces yellow, wilting leaves and the eventual collapse of the plant.

FERTILIZE with specially formulated fertilizers for rhododendrons and azaleas, available at garden shops, according to package instructions. Err toward less rather than more, remembering that the manufacturers aren't selling flowers, they're selling fertilizer.

If you intend to keep an azalea as a potted plant, it is important to go even easier on fertilizing. Over-fertilizing kills as many plants as over-watering. Fertilizer is not the chicken soup of horticulture, and feeding an ailing plant that is not getting the right amount of light or water will do more harm than good.

Azaleas need fertilizing at a time when they are actively growing to increase leaf, stem and root production. Moisten the soil thoroughly before applying a dry fertilizer as roots must be damp to absorb it. Don't fertilize a newly purchased potted azalea for six months because it probably has been given a slow release feeding by the nursery.

OVERDOSING shows up as white salt deposits on the outside of the pot or on the soil surface. The leaves may turn brown. If you suspect you overfed a plant, the best thing to do is to flush it with water, watering it until water runs out of the pot, waiting until it stops and then repeating the process three more times. This applies to any potted plant, not just azaleas.

The Los Angeles Times real estate writer Robert Smaus recommended this homemade pesticide two years ago as a cure for powdery mildew, and California gardeners say that the mildew literally vanishes before your eyes.

To make one gallon of spray, combine in the following order:

1 cup water
1-1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon liquid dishwashing detergent
1 tablespoon white vinegar

Stir thoroughly and add enough water to make one gallon. Store it in an empty plastic container and use in a spray bottle whenever needed. Label the bottle, although there is nothing in the spray to do anything but powdery mildew any permanent harm.

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

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