In high dudgeon, Dave Hudak wrote me recently:
“Last year I planted twenty one azaleas. They were inexpensive one gallon plants. Eight died within seven months. I’ve noticed that the others are struggling but still trying to grow. When I dug the dead ones up to take them back to the nursery I could see that no new roots had grown out of the ball.
I planted the replacements this week but I noticed the root balls were so hard and compacted that I had a hard time even getting a screwdriver into the balls to loosen the roots. I think nurseries should tell gardeners of the degree of loosening necessary. I liked the $2.95 price but it doesn’t cover the labor and disappointment when plants don’t live.”
I wholeheartedly sympathize with the disappointment that accompanies the demise of a plant you fancy. I believe my spectacular and supposedly winter-hardy abutilon (Abutilon ‘Marion Stewart’) met its demise this winter.
On the other hand, the agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ and my ‘Miss Huff’ lantana have sprouted vigorously at the base and I look forward to another summer full of butterflies. The disfigured azalea I rescued from a pile of rocks two years ago even bloomed this April!
ENCOURAGE THE ROOTS Back to Dave and his problem. Azaleas and rhododendrons are famous for having tight root systems in pots. The shrubs naturally have fibrous roots which seek areas of moisture and warmth. That exactly describes the space between the growing media and the inside of a black pot. A mature azalea in a one gallon pot could have a root layer a quarter inch thick with the texture of shoe leather.
Once planted, roots in this condition will not explore the surrounding soil. The root ball dries readily and that starts it down the slippery slope to the compost pile (or back to the garden center).
Personally, I use a razor knife to longitudinally slit the lower half of a tight football four to six times. I then use my fingers and thumbs to splay the sections outward before planting. In this manner the roots will no longer be circling the inside of a pot. They will be forced to explore the soil that will provide their new home.
GOOD PLANTING BED Though planting azaleas and rhododendrons is a bit more problematic in spring than in fall, you can dramatically increase your chances of success by preparing a good bed beforehand.
Knowing how azalea roots love to creep through rich, organic soil, I dig a spot four feet in diameter and six inches deep for each plant. I remove all the soil. The top four inches goes in my wheelbarrow. The bottom two inches of clay is dumped in a hole where a pine stump rotted. To the earth in the wheelbarrow I add an equal amount of soil conditioner. I chop and stir with a hoe to thoroughly mix the two. Upon dumping the mixture back in the hole, I find that I’ve created a slight mound, a perfect azalea or rhododendron habitat.
You already know how I prepare the root ball for planting. When I finish, the plant sits in its mound, a few inches above the surrounding landscape. I cover the mound with mulch and soak the spot thoroughly. If the weather is dry I’ll return a week later to soak it again.
Garden centers are happy to offer guarantees as a courtesy but they hate seeing poor, bedraggled plants coming back through their doors if it could have been avoided. I can’t guarantee that EVERY plant that Dave installs will thrive if he follows my method. I CAN guarantee that your azaleas will be more likely to thrive if you follow the steps I’ve outlined.