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Azalea Use and Design: Home

The Azalea Garden at NYBG; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
The Maureen Chilton Azalea Garden in NYBG

Azaleas provide home gardeners with wonderful spring color that extends from April into July (depending on the species). Evergreen azaleas provide year-round interest while deciduous azaleas often offer multi-seasonal appeal and lovely fall foliage. Azaleas are slow growing; many of them, save some of the larger deciduous natives, make good candidates for foundation plantings. By following a few simple rules it is easy to design effectively with azaleas.

Azaleas can be planted as specimens or in groups

The royal azalea (Rhododendron schlippenbachii) not only has luminescent pinkish-white flowers in late April/early May but also exquisite, rounded foliage that is arranged like pinwheels on the stems, making it an ideal specimen plant.

The native flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) flowers in late May to early June in a variety of shades from firey red-orange to yellow-orange (as the name would suggest). Specimens can reach up to 12 feet tall and 5 feet wide and rival any large Viburnum in the garden. When planted en masse, flame azaleas create a nuanced, color harmony that will brighten any landscape; they do not look congested or dense due to their graceful structure. Though deciduous, they can provide seasonal screening in your yard.

Pay attention to bloom time when planting azaleas in groups

Azaleas can generally be categorized by three bloom times: early, mid, or late season. Azaleas can be effectively planted so that they flower sequentially;  as one azalea fades its neighbor opens, providing color for extended periods. Or, weave a tapestry by planting groups of azaleas that flower at the same time.

When working with color in your garden, do not mix too many bright colors together

Azaleas come in a broad spectrum of color; white, salmon, mauve, pink, purple and all variations of red, orange and yellow.  Blend bright colors with paler shades or white, so as not to overwhelm. Every design needs moments where the colors blend and the intensity subsides to give the eye a chance to rest and absorb the scene.

Pay attention to the size and the growth habit of your azaleas when combining in groups

Azaleas come in all shapes and sizes. Some have an upright habit while others have a more sprawling or creeping habit. Small azaleas are wonderful additions to a rock garden or a well-defined edge of a border or foundation.

Pair deciduous azaleas with other deciduous azaleas and match evergreens with each other

Combining deciduous azaleas with evergreen azaleas in an overall planting is fine, but when placed side by side they generally look best with their own kind.

Massed azaleas brighten a dark area at NYBG

Massed azaleas brighten a shaded pathway at NYBG

Place azaleas strategically in your yard where they can brighten up shadier areas

Placing an azalea in a shady corner can brighten up or draw attention to an otherwise overlooked spot. Curves in garden beds can be accentuated in the spring with a bright burst of color. Staggering azaleas as focal points (rather than planting in large groups) can create the impression of a flowing landscape in which your eye meanders from one colorful accent to another.   

Evergreen azaleas add year-round structure to the garden, providing a solid framework when not in flower

Deciduous azaleas generally have a graceful habit and add a structural component throughout the season. They are also an important part in the full garden design, highlighting areas late in the season and combining effortlessly with other plants that have fall color.

Interplant azaleas with a selection of native and non-native shrubs and perennials

Partner azaleas in the garden with woodland perennials such as ferns, wild ginger (Asarum), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum), hosta (Hosta), toad lily (Tricyrtis), and many others.

Combine azaleas with other flowering shrubs

Extend the flowering season and experiment with texture and foliage by combining azaleas with other attractive shrubs. The oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) makes a natural choice, thriving in part shade and providing interest with its broad, oak-leaf foliage and late-season flowers. Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major) blends well with large native azaleas, while the dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) complements smaller, cultivated varieties.

Underplant azaleas with spring bulbs.

Make the most out of seasonal moments in your garden. Pair spring-blooming azaleas with daffodils (Narcissus) that flower at the same time; yellow daffodils will enliven the scene, while white varieties with peach-colored corollas harmonize with many color schemes.  

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Noteworthy Books on Azaleas and Rhododendrons