If you must . . .

Use azaleas sparingly, in a setting with light shade and deep, acidic soil

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

How should we use azaleas? Sparingly, to start with, and preferably in a setting with light shade and deep, acidic soil. Use them as you might any other woodland shrub with presence, to brighten their space in bloom, then to recede while others take the lead. Smaller varieties can be used to bring down the scale in smaller beds, in the same way as dwarf nandinas or large hostas.

A landscape designer I trust, Florence Everts, reminds me that the big old hybrids now abloom are just part of a larger azalea world worth exploring. She loves to use Satsuki azaleas, small plants with big flowers, often striped or blotched, that appear in late spring. She's also a fan of varieties of Robin Hill azaleas, which grow only to four feet and also bloom in the back half of May. There are deciduous azaleas, which develop as upright shrubs in lovely shades of red, orange and yellow, and again bloom as late-season plants.

Foundation plantings have their place in visually anchoring a home, hiding ugly bits and presenting a pleasing and conspicuous plant display. But it is not necessary to have old azaleas as the predominant feature. Nor is it dictated that the vegetation has to be of evergreens or even woody plants.

A mix of small to medium-size shrubs of up to four feet works well with perennials. Don't pick one of everything you fancy, because the result will be a vegetative mush. Give a bed structure with thoughtfully placed shrubs, and then fill the voids with massed plantings of ground covers grown as much for their foliage as flowers, beauties such as cranesbills, hostas, hardy begonias and leadwort.

First, though, it may mean taking out an overgrown azalea that has had its day, if you dare to run against the herd.

-- A.H.

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