Here are tips on avoiding the azalea police

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Transplants from other parts of the world already know it is a requirement you include evergreen azaleas in your landscape. Shirk this responsibility and the azalea police will be on your case faster than a Garden-stater can utter “youse guys.” In an effort to help you avoid this unpleasantness, here are some tips on growing azaleas along with some varieties to consider.

The key to success with evergreen azaleas (there are lots of deciduous ones that aren’t nearly as popular) is to remember they have lousy roots. They first grew on sloping areas with great drainage, so they didn’t evolve with lots of natural defenses against root diseases like phytophthora. These same lousy roots aren’t the most efficient at taking up water and they are extra sensitive to excess fertilizer salts in the soil. That means you’ll need evenly moist, high organic matter soil that isn’t nuked with too much fertilizer. That’s why azalea fertilizers are usually low analysis like 4-8-8.

While some azaleas will tolerate full sun, you’ll have greater success where the light is bright but not direct. The partial shade cast by tall pine trees is just about right. Studies have shown azaleas growing in full sun tend to have more lace bugs.

Speaking of lace bugs, they are the most commonly reported insect problem on shrubs in North Carolina. The adults with clear, lace-like wings feed along with the spiny nymphs on the underside of the leaves. The upper leaf surfaces will end up “stippled,” losing the green color if the numbers are high. The females lay eggs on the back of the leaves and then deposit a little poop to protect them. That’s the black specks. Just about any insecticide will control lace bugs. Just make sure you direct it to the back of the leaf.

If you love azaleas but don’t have ideal conditions, consider the Southern Indicas. Some of the locals call them “Formosas,” but that’s actually one of the varieties with magenta flowers. The white Mrs. G.G. Gerbing and the light pink George L. Taber are popular as well. The downside for the Southern Indicas is they grow into large plants—often reaching 10-feet tall and wide.

One of my favorite smaller azaleas is Carror that was developed jointly at N.C. State and Louisiana State universities. You may hear this group referred to as Carla hybrids (‘car’ and ‘la’). Sunglow is probably the most well known of the Carla group. These plants have pretty good tolerance to phytophthora root rot.

What else can you say about Encore azaleas? They are great plants if you do the soil preparation. In stressful sites, they are sure to disappoint. My favorite Encore is the medium-sized pink Autumn Empress.