By Kim Toscano
Gardeners across the country experienced extreme cold temperatures this past winter leaving many azaleas damaged. Visible impacts include brown or blackened foliage, defoliation, and brown colored flower buds. Time will tell the severity of the damage, which may vary plant to plant across the landscape.
When to Prune Winter Damage
While you may be eager to remove cold-damaged foliage right away, the best course of action is to wait until new growth emerges. Only then can we determine the extent of the damage. By pruning too early, we risk cutting out plant tissues that are still living and will recover on their own. In many cases, azaleas will shed the damaged foliage and leaf out in with fresh growth.
Once we see buds begin to open or new foliage emerge, we can then differentiate between living and dead tissue. Winter-damaged plants may be slow in leafing out, so be patient. Plants with more severe damage may die back partially, with new foliage and stems emerging from the lower portion of the plant. Cut back dead stems to a living bud or lateral branch and remove any branches that are split lengthwise along the stem. It may take a couple of years of shaping to regain a strong form.
Stop and Wait for the Flowers
Another reason to delay pruning is to avoid cutting off healthy flower buds. This is why we traditionally wait until the end of the spring flowering season to prune azaleas. On cold-damaged plants, some flower buds are obviously dead – shriveled and dry, they fall off the plant at the slightest touch. Others may be discolored but still plump. These are likely to open.
Don’t worry if your plants fail to flower this spring. Encore Azaleas produce flower buds on the new growth throughout summer. Prune out dead tissue and enjoy the summer and autumn blooms that are sure to follow.
Severely damaged plants may die back completely to the ground. Azalea roots are fairly shallow, and plants may not recover if roots were exposed to prolonged periods of cold. If you are replacing cold-damaged plants in the garden, consider a hardier variety of Encore Azalea. Many varieties are hardy to USDA Zone 6, where average minimum winter temperatures dip to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. These include both dwarf and intermediate-sized plants in all hues.
Mulching azaleas in fall provides roots with an extra layer of protection. Layer three to four inches of pine straw or bark around the base of plants, extending beyond the leaf canopy. As cold weather approaches make sure plants have sufficient moisture. Water plants before freezing weather if rainfall has been scarce, as moist soil provides better insulation. These simple steps can help protect azaleas from the next big freeze.
Ready to plant more Encore Azaleas this spring? Learn which Encore Azaleas are the most cold-hardy.