Azaleas Demystified: When Do You Prune Azaleas?
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Winter is the time to observe the bones of your garden, and reflect on how the previous year went. Looking back at the questions I received in the previous year, I noticed an uptick in interest in pruning evergreen azaleas. Unfortunately, this interest usually came at the most inconvenient time! Let’s get ahead of 2024 and learn how to not nip your azaleas in the bud.
DO NOT Prune Your Azaleas in the Winter
There is a lot of information about how pruning in the winter can be beneficial to plants, and this is mostly true. Except in the case of plants that bloom in the winter or spring on old wood, like evergreen azaleas! Evergreen azaleas set their buds in the late summer/early fall; so if you sheer your shrubs in the winter to shape them, you will shave off all of your spring buds. I have seen many an evergreen azalea be pruned back year after year, and maybe a few flowers will make it, but they never reach their full horticultural value.
DO Prune Your Evergreen Azaleas AFTER They Flower (Whenever that is!)
Once evergreen azaleas are done flowering, you can shear, shape, tip prune or cut
them to the ground. They will be back! I say “after flowering” because some azaleas will be flowering in February and some into June!
Evergreen azaleas will put out one to two flushes of growth a year: the first one being right after that spring flowering and the second in the mid-summer. The post-flowering time is the best time to cut the plants back really hard, if they have gotten too big for the spot they are in. Evergreen azaleas are incredibly resilient and will send out a flush of growth after a harsh pruning; and can flower the next year just fine! You can cut off those weird whip shoots and “Alfalfa hairs” (think The Little Rascals character!) without sacrificing flowers as late as mid-summer. About early August should be your cut-off for sheering, if you prefer that meatball-look.
The exception to the late summer rule are Encore(R) azaleas and other cultivars that flower in the late summer/fall. You could potentially be pruning off flower buds if you want too long to prune after the spring flush.
When It is Okay to Prune Anytime!
There are always exceptions to every rule, right? In the case of pruning evergreen azaleas, you can always prune off dead, diseased and dying branches. Make sure you burn or remove dead/diseased/dying materials from your property, and you
spray your tools with alcohol to prevent the spread of disease. There are a few wilt diseases that azaleas can get that can cause a whole branch to suddenly wilt and die. Make sure to always be looking out for these and prune them out as soon as you see them! They can infect the whole shrub!
The other instance is when a plant’s growth is in your way! Do not suffer through growth that impedes your ability to walk by it, park your car, or access an area. Pruning for access is always the gardener’s purview. Just avoid making these types of pruning cuts during harsh, cold, freezing weather, as it can harm the evergreen azaleas.
Pruning Deciduous Azaleas
This article is mainly about evergreen azaleas, but it is worth mentioning our native deciduous, or honeysuckle, azaleas, as well. These beautiful upright vase shrubs lose their leaves in the winter and become skeletal sticks with charming buds atop each stem. Thankfully, their pruning is the same as evergreen azaleas, as they also flower in the spring and prefer to be pruned post-flowering. They are also incredibly resilient to hard prunings, post-flowering.
Proper Pruning Planning Prevents Poor Plant Performance
Take charge of your plants’ appropriate pruning schedule and maximize your plants’ health and flowering potential. Instead of wondering what to do too late in the year after your evergreen azalea has taken on that hair-brained look, you can expertly prune or shear your evergreen azaleas once they stop flowering and restore the size and look you need in your landscape. Here’s to happy flowering in 2024 and 2025!
Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.