Ahh, azaleas! One of spring’s botanical joys. So, why are we discussing them now, at the beginning of fall? For many people, spring inspires them to make changes in their gardens, like moving that overgrown or misplaced azalea to a more appropriate spot in the yard. It makes sense since that’s the time of year when you can best see whether the flowers will clash with or compliment your surrounding landscape. Yet, spring is not the only time to transplant; there are advantages to making those big moves in the fall.
While you can transplant trees and shrubs any time of year, fall is considered the best time for optimal growth and survival with a few exceptions. Typically, nourishing rains and cooler temperatures return in the fall for most parts of the country. It is under these conditions that woody plants—in this case, azaleas—can develop deeper and stronger root systems over the course of the winter. This root growth gives your new or transplanted azalea a better chance for survival during hot, dry spells in the coming year.
Transplanting azaleas in the spring can still be done, but is not recommended after late April in the mid-Atlantic region (This is a general date as environmental conditions vary widely depending on which hardiness zone you live in. A good rule of thumb: when overall temperatures begin to climb into the low 80’s F and the rainfall frequency starts to drop off, transplanting should be kept to a minimum unless adequate irrigation is applied. See below.)
To minimize transplant shock (wilting) while moving an azalea from one area of your garden to another, we suggest the following steps:
- Choose a time of the day that is the coolest, as in the early morning or late afternoon. Dig a circle around the shrub about 12 – 18 inches out from the trunk. Then, begin to remove soil from under the fibrous root system. Gently hit the sharp edge of the shovel against the under side of the azalea root mass in order to loosen some of the soil from the roots. In short order, you will have the azalea, and its roots, disengaged from the site. Cradle the root ball with your hands or use a tarp to move the shrub to its new site. Do not carry it by its trunk with the root ball freely hanging or drag it by its branches. Sometimes well-meaning, but overzealous, gardeners have snapped off the whole trunk from the root ball during a tug-of-war with their azalea!
- If you need to transport the recently dug azalea to another site by car/truck, steps need to be taken to reduce desiccation (drying out) of the roots. This is true whether the move takes place in the fall or spring. Watering the shrub before loading will help, but it adds weight. Watering after loading will alleviate that problem if it’s in a pick-up truck. However, wrapping the root ball with moistened burlap that is tied around the shrub’s trunk will solve the root dry out problem.
- You’ll want to plant your azalea into its new site as soon as possible. Avoid planting under beeches, maples, or other shallow-rooted trees; the root competition for moisture and light may be too great for the new transplant to overcome. Prepare a hole ahead of time wider than the root ball of the shrub being transplanted but at the same depth as the original site, just covering the root system with soil. Do not pile soil up around the trunk of the shrub. Using your hands, gently tamp down the soil around the roots, pressing out any air pockets. Avoid stomping on the root ball with your shoes as this causes too much soil compaction.
- Water in the shrub slowly and thoroughly, allowing the water to percolate through the soil. This will settle the soil around the roots and reveal any deficiencies where more soil may be needed. Water once a week for a few weeks following the transplant. Mulch over the root ball with shredded pine bark or wood chips (~ 1 – 2” depth) or oak leaves, pine needles, or other evergreen foliage that won’t pack down (~ 4” depth). You want as much air and water to pass through as possible.
- With luck, the fall and winter months will provide adequate rainfall/moisture to sustain your new transplant. But, be aware: drought can occur during cold weather, too. If this proves true, you will need to water the azalea much like you would during a summer drought. Water deeply once a week for the duration of the dry spell (equivalent of 1” of rain), especially in the first 3 years.
- If you are transplanting in the spring, the next day’s sun hitting any flowers will probably wilt them, but a second watering the next day should help reduce the wilt. That evening the flowers should resume their perky appeal.
With a bit of extra care and attention, your azalea should become established in no time. If you’re looking for just the right azalea for your garden, check out our azalea photo gallery. You can peruse hundreds of images, one of which is sure to be a perfect match for your landscape.
Azalea Photo Gallery
An azalea showing beautiful fall color (top image); an azalea being transplanted (middle image); 'George Lindley Tabor' azalea (shown at left).