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Azalea alternatives

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Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Gardening Columnist
Thursday, April 22, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins was on line Thursday, April 22, at Noon ET to discuss alternatives to azaleas in the garden.

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Springfield, VA: Adrian,

Do established azaleas transplant well? I have a few I would like to move to open up a bed in my yard.

Adrian Higgins: Hi folks, I know I have sort of taken a step toward martyrdom is dissing the azalea (again) but let's open the forum. Yes, even old azaleas will move as long as enough of the root system is preserved, but this is best done in late summer.

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Capitol Hill, DC: What are some shrub size plants you would recommend for large black architectural containers on a contemporary deck? There are no other plantings, so they need to be focal points. No yucca or grass.

Adrian Higgins: I love the dwarf hinoki false cypress for that use.

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Vienna, Va.: I'm looking for bushes to screen an ugly fence, so ones that would grow to 4-6 ft (or taller would be great. The problem is, they would be underneath mature white pine trees in almost complete shade. I've tried oakleaf hydrangeas before and they died, but I don't know if I prepared the soil correctly. Any ideas for other possibilities?

Adrian Higgins: That's a tricky one, dry shade, I would consider spirea Nikko. Water them to get them established, but not too much, or the pines will suffer.

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Bethesda, Md.: No matter how I feel about azaleas, I inherited some when I bought my house. They are healthy and bloom well and add a dose of color between my daffodils and when the lilies appear, so I'm not going to get rid of them. My question, though, is that they are looking a bit scraggily right now and need to be trimmed and shaped up. When is the correct time to do so and is there anything specific I need to know to keep them looking their best?

Thanks.

Adrian Higgins: Most texts will tell you to prune right after flowering, so that you remove branches before the following year's buds are set in summer. The truth is the azalea is so loaded with blossoms, that you can pretty much prune at any time and it won't affect the show. Don't, please, shear the plant into cubes or spheres. It's looks so unnatural.

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Chevy Chase Md.: I love my Chinese fringe tree, a species you praised in this morning's paper. It's about 4 years old, and 7 feet high. It seems healthy, with lots of spring growth. But every year the foliage is so thin, with some branches just in leaf near the ends. Can you suggest why this might be so?

Adrian Higgins: The Chinese fringe tree should get rather dense. I had one that I took out because the scale became all wrong. It is foliating at the end of the branches because that's where the light is. If you can remove some of the branches to bring more light into the center of the tree, it should respond with thicker growth.

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Vienna, Va: What is the best way to get an arborist to evaluate trees -- one that does not have a vested interest in taking them out or doing major work. Is there the arborist version of a for-a-fee financial advisor? We have a yard that is shaded with old, but mostly healthy locusts, a couple of maples and a wild cherry. I only want to prune or get rid of trees that are a danger, but need professional advice.

Adrian Higgins: There is a something called a carried arborist, who also does the work, and one called a consulting arborist, who just consults. The latter, on paper, will give you a more independent opinion. Get several bids for the work from certified arborists.

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Diss away: Azalea is just so over-used in this area (and environs of Atlanta). They have their place but so does imagination. Another of my least favorite things is Bradford Pear. In your opinion, what are some other overused or less imaginative plantings here in DC?

Adrian Higgins: OK. Let's see, er, azaleas, Bradford pears, and to that pantheon I would add Leyland cypress, redtip photinia, Natchez crape myrtle and perhaps rhododendrons. You might add nandina to the list, but that's one plant I find keeps its value in spite of its ubiquity.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for speaking out against the overuse and misuse of azaleas in this area. There's nothing inherently wrong with them; it's their misuse that makes them so dreadful. Azaleas look lovely when they are SCATTERED (not clumped together) in a wooded setting amidst a variety of different greens and textures, and, when they are allowed to grow out into loose lacy airy shapes instead of trimmed into squat heavy hedges and left in the sun. In the correct setting they add beautiful color and texture in their blooming season then recede into the background. The way they are treated in this area is an abomination. My mother always said, "Any plant out of place is a weed." In this area, azaleas have been turned into weeds.

Adrian Higgins: This is my point exactly, thank you. It's not that the azalea is inherently bad, or garish. As an accent in a woodland garden, it can be superb. It's that it has become the default shrub and we don't seem to have the imagination to change that cliche.

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Azaleas: While I agree that we should branch out, there is a reason that my transplanted-Texan husband says this is the prettiest area he has ever seen in the spring: It's the azaleas, dogwoods, cherries, and redbuds. I disagree that they should be used "sparingly." A solo azalea (especially if cut into a ball or square shrub) is a pitiful sight -- they want company.

Adrian Higgins: It's a big tent.

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Olney, Md.:

Thanks for commenting about our overuse of azaleas in the DC area. I guess it's a southern thing. I used to live in Richmond and in April, especially during Garden Week, the azalea held full-court attention everywhere you turned.

I am considering some of the alternatives you listed. Is the fringe tree deer-resistant? Can I find it locally? Same for the oakleaf hydrangeas, are they deer-resistant?

Like yourself, I am a big fan of hellebores. I seem to have a bumper crop of new seedlings this year, which I will spread around the shade garden.

Adrian Higgins: I don't know if the fringetree and oakleaf hydrangea are resistant. Obviously deer love the azaleas. Does anyone have an answer?

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White Oak Help: We have to huge white oaks in our yard in vienna. We had them dated and one is 175 years old and the other is 180. Last summer, both had issues with gypsy moths. We had them both sprayed and deep fertilized. Unfortunately, we've noticed several lower branches die off. They appear black and spongy. Is this a result of the moths, or some other problem?

Adrian Higgins: The caterpillars weaken the tree by defoliating it and forcing it to use precious reserves to grow more leaves. That is unlikely to be the direct cause of branch dieback. Given the value and age of these trees, I would definitely invest in the services of a good certified arborist.

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You might add nandina to the list, but that's one plant I find keeps its value in spite of its ubiquity. I don't think I understand your definition of "keeping value" -- nandinas are at least as overused as azaleas. Can you explain?

Adrian Higgins: They are not as garish, they retain a dignity about them, they can be cut back hard when they look leggy, and they have three or four seasons of interest. They also work in poor soils.

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Arlington, Va.: I have two hydrangeas that I bought from Whole Foods over Easter. I heard that I should plant them after they are done blooming. Where is the best place to plant them? In shade or sun or partial shade? I have two in my garden already that have grown quite large, so it seems I will want to plant them somewhere they have room to grow. What is your feeling about planting them at the front of a house where the sidewalk meets the street? This would be one of our sunniest spots in our yard. Thanks for your help.

Adrian Higgins: Hydrangeas really like a little bit of afternoon shade, and rich moisture retentive soil. They are not shrubs for full sunlight, they will wilt and look awful. Count on yours maturing at six feet high and wide, and plant them accordingly.

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Rockville, Md.: I agree with your article this morning on azaleas. What is the worst are that many people clip them into boxes or sort of rounded gumdrops. Is there a proper way to "prune" an azalea?

Adrian Higgins: Azaleas grow in layers, and the way to prune them is to remove entire branches in a way that may reduce the mass but keep the horizontal effect. The Japanese use a technique called cloud pruning, which makes them look like poodles, and they may be beautiful within the context of that style, but to emulate that here is a bit of a joke.

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Zelkova trees: Not sure I'm spelling that right, but we had an elm tree in our yard that died back in 1993. The garden center suggested the suggested as a replacement. When we planted it in 1993 it was a 2-inch diameter tree maybe 7 feet tall. Its now 25 feet, gives wonderful shade, great fall color and nice movement in the wind. Highly recommend them.

Adrian Higgins: Zelkovas are wonderful, vase shaped trees that grow in difficult conditions. Village Green is a splendid variety.

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Arlington, Va.: Not that I disagree with your suggestions for alternatives, but I see part of the problem as an overabundance of Hershey Red, Delaware Valley white and Gumpo pinks. I think every house in Arlington was planted with these three. And what could be worse than those Delaware Valley spent blossoms--brown sooty cling-ons that never go away.(How about Glacier or Palastrina white, if you can find them?) Is the fault totally the azaleas?

Adrian Higgins: Absolutely right. These are big old varieties. I have seen Delaware Valley White used well as an avenue of big shrubs in a lawn, but the point is, it was used purposefully and with a design intent. The problem with any white flowering shrub, such as lilacs, privet and buddleia, is that the post-bloom browning is more conspicuous than on colored blossoms.

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Oak leaf hydrangea and deer: We set out a lovely healthy large oak leaf hydrangea in our yard and the deer ate it down to the ground. We've put a second right next to the foundation and the deer still nibble a bit, but it's surviving. I wouldn't plant it if you've got a deer problem, too frustrating.

Adrian Higgins: Thanks for that.

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Arlington, Va.: I agree with your assessment of the overuse of azaleas. They are pedestrian at best. I would include Loropetalum in your list of alternatives -- lovely fringy flowers in Spring. Is it related to the Chinese fringe tree you discussed? And also the Bottlebrush Buckeye as a shrub for large spaces. I just planted one this spring and am excited to see how it fills out!

Adrian Higgins: Absolutely right. Loropetalum is now in bloom with feathery purple blooms and maroon foliage. The buckeye is a winner too, blooming in early June.

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Bethesda, Md.: To your list of "overused plants" or "unsuitable for our climate," I would add the lilac and just about most hybrid tea roses.

Adrian Higgins: I agree. Lilacs don't do well here, some are gorgeous in flower, but they are big lanky shrubs with powdery mildew come August. Some of the smaller, later flowering varieties are garden worthy, though. Miss Kim, for example, or Palabin.

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Oh, you brave soul!: Attacking Washington's azaleas takes courage!

But since you are focusing on shade, I would like to plant several different shrubs in the back of my yard. I would like them to eventually be tall to obscure the ugly addition my neighbor just built. My ideal would be three of four shrubs (about 20 feet), some flowering, with contrasting colors and textures. Recommendations?

Adrian Higgins: I would consider a Chindo viburnum, and maybe something called Clerodendrum. The native fringe tree would be good, if deciduous.

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Washington, D.C.: Adrian! You're back! So glad to have you.

I'll be leaving town for two months, and am leaving my community garden plot in the hands of friends with pleas to water it. My expectations are pretty low. Still, is there anything I can do ahead of time which would give it a better chance to survive? Mulch, anything else? Thanks.

Adrian Higgins: I would mulch with a couple of inches of leaf mold, and ask your friend to do a deep soaking at least once a week, not with a sprinkler. Once your seedlings have established, they can get by with an inch of water a week. Deep soil and a mulch are essential.

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Washington, D.C.: One problem I've noticed around DC is that the soil isn't very acidic and a lot of acid- loving shrubs (including azaleas, but also rhododendron, hydrangeas that are supposed to be blue, and pieris) get chlorotic leaves from a too-high pH. What is an "average" pH for our area? Does it tend to be a lot different in the older rowhouse neighborhoods near brick buildings(and soil that seems to be half 100-year-old construction fill)?

If I have sick-looking shrubs what is the best way to lower the pH (adding mulch doesn't seem to do much...think I need something a little more potent)? What shrubs don't mind a higher pH?

Adrian Higgins: Most of our native soils tend to be slightly acidic, but it's possible that concrete etc. will raise the pH. There are quick ways to lower the pH, with aluminum sulfate, for example, but the best long term strategy is to add a top dressing of finished compost once or twice a year.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks so much for this article. I am looking for native alternatives to azaleas? which of the shrubs you mentioned are native to this area? I am hoping to fill a spot on the southeast corner of our house, which receives morning sun and afternoon shade (could be a fairly large shrub when mature).

Adrian Higgins: There are actually native azaleas, many of which are deciduous. They would work well in your corner. I would check out the native plant gardens at the National Arboretum or, near you, Brookside Gardens, for ideas.

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Old quip: I think Henry Allen (the late gardening columnist) reported the quote from a British diplomat about azaleas in the DC area: "Spats for houses."

Adrian Higgins: That was the late great Henry Mitchell, and that line actually was mine 16 years ago when I first took on the azalea Godzilla.

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Burke, Va: Any suggestions for a sunny townhouse front yard? I have two overgrown azaleas right now that I would love to replace. I like the look of burning bush or maybe ornamental grasses but both look terrible in the winter.

Adrian Higgins: Burning bush is frowned on these days, the seeds make their way into the woods. Grasses can look great in the winter. Dwarf crape myrtles can look quite good in a hot site.

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Adrian, it's great to have you back in the WP online chat room --you have been missed! A while back in another column you mentioned that the master gardener program was in danger of getting cut in some jurisdictions. Is that still the case? Should we call our members of Congress?

Adrian Higgins: Hi, yes, but it's funding on a state level. Certainly Virginia is having problems and I've heard from Master Gardeners in several other states.

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Hughesville, Md.: Hi! So, instead of azaleas, what can I plant in the empty bed to hide the foundation of my house? It gets only morning light, but I would like some color, preferably smallish shrubs with something interesting about them. The boxwoods that occupied the space previously were deathly dull.

Thanks!

Adrian Higgins: I think we should think also about perennials. There are many that are large and interesting and would make great groundcovers. The list is endless, Solomon's Seal, hellebores, euphorbias, epimediums, leadwort, hostas, etc.

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Fragrant blooms: I'd like to add some fragrance to my garden space. What are some suggestions? I grew up with lilac and honeysuckle and roses. Not sure these would thrive here.

Adrian Higgins: Lavender, osmanthus, daphne, sweetbox, rugosa roses, clethra and lilies come to mind.

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Grass: Gooda afternoon. Do you have any suggestions for a nice ground cover besides grass? I need to check with HOA and make sure I can do this, but I would rather have clover or something.

Adrian Higgins: Used a lot, but tough as boots, the liriope.

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Columbia, Md.: I have had fringe trees for six years and the deer have never eaten them.

Adrian Higgins: Great!

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Washington, D.C.: Years ago, I planted hellebore (hybrid) in a dappled garden spot. I am now enchanted by them and have added varieties along the way. The deer also seem to leave them alone. I'm surprised they aren't more popular. Is there a downside?

Adrian Higgins: This is the lenten rose, the only consideration is that you need to remove the old foliage in late winter before the new growth emerges, for the best show, but that's about it. I can't think of disease, pest, drought, anything that stops this magnificent plant from doing its thing.

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Alexandria, Va.: Following on the person that asked about transplanting azaleas. We have a few old ones that are around 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide. I was considering moving them to the edge of the yard to quickly restore some privacy lost when some cedars fell during the storms. Is it realistic to try and move them when they are that big or would the size of the root ball needed to dig up a bush that large not be worth the effort?

Adrian Higgins: No, it would be worth it, but you would have to be careful doing it now, because the shrub would be trying to repair roots during the hottest time of year. A light mulch and frequent watering would be a must.

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I have peonies in my front yard: that suffered horribly from powdery mildew last year. What can I do this year if I see this problem again? They are shooting up quickly.

Adrian Higgins: Mildew is worse some years than others, especially if your peonies are in areas with poor air circulation. The disease is prevalent in periods of drought, so watering the roots would be good, and perhaps a preventative spray of neem oil or sodium bicarbonate in water.

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Bowie, Md.: My wife and I had our yard done by a professional landscape company a few years ago, including a water feature (2,000-gallon pond). The company planted a number of azeleas around the pond but they all appear to struggle for the past few years. I find myself having to pull dead branches every year, which is reducing the shrubs' sizes. The leaves don't look so vibrant as they could but the shrubs do produce flowers every spring. I apply Holly Tone twice a year for feed. I was informed (nursery) that azaleas are not supposed to receive direct sunlight, which is the case for me. Is this the truth and what would you recommend we do?

Adrian Higgins: Yes, that's part of the whole azalea problem. In full sun they get ravaged by a pest called lace bug, which sucks the chlorophyll out of the leaves. I would consider some sunny shrubs or perennials. Perovskia would be good, and some Pennisetum orientale, which is a grass I love.

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Northern Va.: Yes, this is the time of year to see which neighbors are either color blind or never saw a color mix they don't like. Pink, orange, and lavender azaleas all mixed together are painful to see!

It would be nice to see your list of alternatives include information on which varieties are less tasty to the deer vs. those that are featured delicacies on a deer buffet.

Adrian Higgins: Good points. Plants with silver leaves and aromatic oils, such as phlomis, rosemary, lavender, are less attractive to deer.

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Azaleas yes!: Having moved here from a cold, northern climate with a gray and muddy spring, I think the crazy numbers of azaleas are great. Perfect even. Subtlety is overrated; sometimes unbridled enthusiasm is the right choice.

Adrian Higgins: Give it a few years.

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Dogwood: Love dogwood trees but recall that there is some blight affecting them. What is your take on my planting a dogwood? Am I inviting trouble?

Adrian Higgins: I would still plant flowering dogwood, but give it good culture, i.e... organically enriched soil that drains but retains moisture, and plant it away from feet, which will compact the soil, and away from lawn, whose needs are different from the dogwood's.

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Arlington, Va.: Is there any place in the DC area that actually has a collection of azaleas that are worth a look? I've heard the Arboretum might have a good display, but I have not been there. Any other public gardens?

Adrian Higgins: The Arboretum's collection is basically the remnants of a breeding program, and looks the picture in the woodlands. It certainly draws the crowds.

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Fairfax, Va.: Can you offer help to a very shady, wooded backyard? We sit slightly lower than our neighbor and get runoff during heavy rains. We have some grass that tends to get washed away if there is a very wet season. What plants do well in the shade? (besides azaleas??)

Adrian Higgins: This will have to be the last one. I think both hostas and ferns, of which there are hundreds of varieties, would do well in shaded, wet conditions. Thanks for joining the discussion about azaleas. This isn't an elitist position, I'm just saying that there are so many other shrubs and other plants to use, that we should think outside this box. Have a great spring.

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