On Monday, March 20 at 6:28 a.m., I awoke to the alarm that I had set for the first day of spring. As I stumbled outside to feel the warmth that should have arrived with that date, I was quickly forced back inside by Jack Frost and a blustery 31 degree cold wind. This rude wakeup call reminded me that sometimes you just can’t depend on a calendar when it comes to weather or changes in the seasons. Instead of relying on a calendar, Mother Nature will give you some tell-tell signs that spring is on the way. An early sign from Mother Nature that spring is just around the corner is when the azalea shrubs begin to bud and bloom.
As I have traveled the county this week, I have seen an array of shapes, sizes, and colors of azaleas that has begun to bring a much-needed splash of color to the landscape, and serve as a reminder that spring is quickly approaching. Azaleas bloom between March and June with both evergreen and deciduous types available. They prefer our regions acidic soil type, and thrive in shaded areas, such as under pine stands. Azalea’s should be planted in the spring in well drained soils, slightly above the soil level. Amending the soil with compost before planting helps by adding organic matter, water conservation, and giving the plants a long-term boost. Mulching with pine straw or pine bark will help keep weeds at bay. To maintain the desired shape or appearance of an azalea, you should prune as soon as the blooming period ends. This will ensure that you have fuller plants that will produce many blooms the following year.
Two pests to be on the lookout for is the azalea leafminer and the azalea caterpillar. The azalea leafminer will emerge at the same time azaleas begin to bloom. They overwinter as pupae in rolled leaves or as larvae in mined leaves. Adults are yellow, about 1/2-inch long and stand at attention when at rest on the leaves. While looking at your blooms, inspect the leaves for this insect or indicators of its presence. If you have leafminers, you will see rolled leaves that are bound with webbing, or the epidermis layer will be peeled from the leaf. Leafminers can be controlled with insecticides such as spinosid, bifenthrin, cyfluthrin, or acephate.
Azalea caterpillars show up in early fall, typically in August and September. They chew leaves back until the entire shrub has been defoliated, then move to the next bush. These caterpillars are .5-1-inch long, have a black body with yellow broken stripes, a red head and legs, and sparse hairs on their bodies. If you disturb one of these caterpillars, they will posture into a “U” shape and will simulate an attack. To control azalea caterpillars, the easiest method is to pick them off and crush them. You can also use carbaryl, acephate, or cyfluthrin pesticides.
If you are interested in adding azaleas to your landscape, or learning more about azaleas, the Sampson County Extension Master Gardeners will be selling All American Azaleas during the month of April at the Sampson County Extension Office, 55 Agriculture Place, Clinton, Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. These azaleas are grown locally, are 3 years old, and come in a three-gallon pot in an assortment of colors and sizes. The Extension Master Gardeners are also selling compost to amend the soil when planting your azaleas.
Don’t forget that the Sampson County Extension Service is offering the Sampson County Friends of Horticulture program this year. This program offers monthly “How To” horticultural seminars targeting homeowners and gardeners of Sampson County. Our next session will cover managing fire ants for the homeowner on April 20th at 6 p.m. at the Sampson Extension Center. There is limited seating and this session is filling fast. Pre-register by calling 910-592-7161! The registration fee is $5 per session, and you only pay for the session that you want to attend.
The use of brand names and any mention or listing of commercial products or services in this publication does not imply endorsement by North Carolina State University nor discrimination against similar products or services not mentioned.
Brad Hardison is an agricultural extension agent specializing in horticulture.