If you have a spectacular azalea garden, especially hybrids that are no longer available, you'll certainly want to allocate time over the next week to grow new azaleas from cuttings.
Cuttings can be taken at any time of year, but this is the perfect time. Cuttings will root quickly at this point because you are capturing new wood grown this year, and there is plenty of time for the mother azalea to grow new shoots to replace those being pruned. Thanks to this schedule, there will be no loss of flowers come late April 1988. If you have healthy lilac or viburnum, cuttings may be taken from these shrubs now in the same way as azaleas.
In every case, cuttings should be taken from healthy plants. If any foliage on a plant has been of imperfect color, it's best not to take cuttings from the shrub. Also, if there is evidence of insect attack this spring, avoid those plants as well.
You should be taking "stem tip" cuttings, six-inch cuttings from ends of branches. Since the plant will regrow from the point where you cut the branch, don't worry about disfiguring a plant by taking cuttings from the most visible part. Over the next six weeks, regrowth will fill in the area you're now pruning.
To be safe, rub down the cutting edges of your pruner with chlorine bleach first and then cut. Stand cuttings immediately in a bucket, glass or container of water.
For professional results, label cuttings as they are taken. For example, label one bucket "red azalea" and insert all the cuttings from that plant into the bucket. Cuttings from your white azalea would be placed in another bucket labeled accordingly. Keep labels with all sorted cuttings through all steps of the growing process so you know which is which.
Pinch off all foliage and branches on the bottom half of the cutting, then return it to the water.
Cuttings may be rooted indoors or outdoors, depending on your preference. If you're taking only a handful of cuttings, start them indoors in 12- to 16-inch plastic pots filled with your standard 1-1-1 soil mixture. This translates to equal amounts of "milled" or "compressed" sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.
Add these materials first to a paper bag, close it at the top with your hands, then rotate the bag several times to mix. Empty the mixture into a plastic dishpan, add a tablespoon of liquid Woolite or Joy dishwashing detergent to a quart of water, and wet the soil completely. Finally, fill the plastic pot almost to the top with your prewetted soil. Remember to label pots for different azaleas.
Poke three-inch holes into the dirt in the pot with the eraser end of a pencil, spacing the holes 1 1/2 inches apart. Remove your cutting from the water, roll the lower half into Rootone or Hormodin No. 2 hormone powder, then insert the cutting into the predrilled hole. Insert the flat blade of a knife into the soil on all sides of the cutting, using the blade to move soil next to the stem of the cutting. Only cuttings from the same color azalea should go into one pot.
Having filled the pot with cuttings, spray-mist warm water over the pot. Next, find a large plastic bag, place the pot inside, draw the bag together at the top and blow air inside to inflate the bag. Seal the top with a rubber band, then place the assembly in the warmest room of the house out of reach of the sun's rays. The hotter the room, the faster the cuttings will root.
Every five days, remove the bag, spray-mist warm water over the cuttings and soil, then return the pot to the bag and inflate with air again. At worst, cuttings will root in three weeks.
Rooting cuttings outdoors is strongly recommended if you would like to propagate dozens of plants. If you remember the scenario for rooting forsythia cuttings, propagating azaleas will be a piece of cake.
Site selection is critical. You want almost total shade in the garden in a place where the soil drains well. The only sun your cuttings will tolerate is the first moments after sunrise.
Begin by creating a V-shaped trench with a spade. Insert the spade in the ground up to the length of the blade, then thrust it forward to create the V-shaped trench. Continue spading until the trench or trenches will accommodate your cuttings. Cuttings should be spaced six inches apart in the trench.
Lay down an inch layer of sharp sand (washed sand or builder's sand) in the trench. Remove your cuttings from their respective containers and stand them up against the back wall of the trench. There is no need to use the hormone powder because planting will wash the stem clean. Pre-mix equal amounts of sharp sand, peat humus (Michigan peat) and composted cow manure, then fill the trench to the top with the mix.
Immediately come back and water the soil, topping off after the soil has settled. Mulch promptly (salt hay, hardwood nuggets, shredded bark) to a thickness of two inches, keeping mulch away from the stems of cuttings. Use a watering can twice a week to keep the soil moist. Don't flood the trench for any reason. If you can, dig a large hole at the low end of the trench to keep water from collecting around the roots. The cow manure in the soil mix will take care of the food supply.
Don't use chemical sprays for insect control on cuttings propagated outdoors. The best practice is to use Safer's insecticidal soap every other week from now until late September to keep aphids, lacebugs and mites at bay. In a pinch, dusting plants with kitchen flour is fine.
Unlike forsythia cuttings, which may be transplanted to new locations in September, lilac and viburnum should remain in place over the fall and winter. Plants can be moved in late April of next year to take their rightful places in the landscape. Labeling the plants throughout the propagating cycle will enable you to color coordinate placement at that time.
Other reminders:Japanese beetles are starting to mate. Therefore, females will be heading for sunny lawns to deposit their eggs, more often on watered turf than unwatered lawns. Hatched 10 days later, the tiny grubs will start eating the grassroots, but most damage won't occur until late July. Spectracide 6000 should be put down at that time. Look for a sale on the granular material over the next month. Lay in a supply of potassium sulfate (50-pound bag, around $18). Fill the hopper of your lawn spreader and apply four pounds of the granules for each thousand square feet. Settings should be at 4 on the rotary Cyclone or Spyker, or 5 on the Scott drop spreader. Try to apply just before a rain so the potassium is washed into the soil. According to turfgrass studies at the University of Nebraska, the dividends are many: roots increase in size and number, wear tolerance increases, water loss in the plants declines and there is less wilting of turf even when it was under moisture stress. Apply now and again in September when you are actively fertilizing the lawn. If you're finding white webs on the grass in the early morning, the problem isn't insects but disease. If the lawn is on a slope, the disease is probably pythium (growing circles of dead grass, with white cobwebs showing in early morning on healthy grass just beyond the dead inner circle). The best, most effective cure is Subdue 2E, using 2 ounces of the liquid mixed in 5 to 10 gallons of water, applied to a thousand square feet.
NEXT: Reinvigorating the bedding garden, thwarting apple maggots, pruning for fireblight and making your own potpourri. Jack Eden hosts "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500AM).