Late-blooming azaleas need pruning now

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Azalea blooms were magnificent this year. They bloomed a bit later than expected, but that was a blessing in disguise because Masters Week was prettier than it has been in several years.

Now that the blooms have faded, it's time for some maintenance work.

The best time to prune or trim your plants is now, right after the flowers fade and fall off. Pruning allows new growth to mature and form buds so they will flower next spring. It also allows plenty of time for the new growth to mature and harden off to avoid freeze damage in fall or winter.

If you see any dead shoots, look for split bark on lower branches or stems. Cut dead shoots below the wound.

Plants that are cut back extensively now may require another light pruning in early to mid summer to increase branching or to thin out excessive branches. A light pruning in early summer should not reduce bud count.

You also need to be on the lookout for lace bugs, the main pest of azaleas. Adult lace bugs are flat and rectangular and about 1/4-inch long. Lace bugs feed on the underside of leaves and deposit black excrement that sticks to the bottom of the leaves. The leaves appear mottled on top.

Controlling lace bugs in March and April while they are young and populations are small is the key. The bugs spend the winter as eggs inside azalea leaves. When temperatures warm, the eggs hatch and nymphs then begin to feed.

Your goal should be to get rid of the nymphs before they mature and lay eggs. Lace bugs can produce four generations from spring to fall. If you kill the first generation, you may not have to spray again.

Horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps are organic and work fairly well. Carbaryl (Sevin) spray can also be used. Since these are contact sprays, you must aim for the bugs underneath the leaves, which can be a challenge in thick azalea beds. Don't use oils in hot weather as they can burn the plants.

Other control options include spraying with a systemic insecticide such as acephate (Orthene or Ortho Systemic Insect Spray). You don't have to spray underneath the leaves and it lasts longer (about six weeks). You can also use granular or liquid systemic insecticides that are simply poured on the ground and watered in. One popular product contains imidacloprid (Merit) and is sold as Bayer Tree and Shrub Insect Control.

Many azaleas get only minor damage and they don't warrant spraying, while others get eaten up. I think a lot of it depends on where you live and, to some extent, the variety of azaleas you have.

In severe infestations, plants are damaged aesthetically, will have reduced photosynthesis and may die back.

Sid Mullis is the director of the University of Georgia Extension Service Office for Richmond County. Call him at (706) 821-2349, or send e-mail to smullis@uga.edu.

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