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The winter azaleas: irresistible and worth a gamble.

The winter azaleas: irresistible and worth a gamble

Dominating the winter azalea scene are Belgian Indicas and their hybrids. Their flowers are large and showy, their coloring unusual--often with flecks or edging of a contrasting shade.

In most climates, these are strictly florist's plants, intended to be enjoyed indoors during bloom, then tossed away. But in mild-winter areas of the West, it's possible to grow these temperamental beauties outdoors. Most other azaleas are easier, particularly sun azaleas such as the closely related Southern Indicas. But Belgian Indicas' beauty and early bloom over a long season make them favorites.

They perform best in California's low elevations influenced by the ocean--zones 15 to 17 and 20 to 24 in the Sunset Western Garden Book. In Southern California particularly, they tend to flower early and for an extended period, often starting in October, peaking in March or April, and continuing sporadically as late as June.

In northern California, they may bloom in fall, stop during cold weather, then bloom again. Or they may put on just one spectacular show in spring.

Elsewhere, only determined gamblers will find it worthwhile to protect them from both summer heat and winter chilling below 20| to 30|.

Plants raised outdoors are easier

If these azaleas have been grown outdoors in nurseries, they can go into patio pots now--or directly into the garden if your soil is dry enough to prepare. Usually sold in 1- to 5-gallon cans or larger containers, these plants are often labeled by variety name and type.

Greenhouse-grown plants are more difficult to establish and need a gradual transition. Typically smothered with blossoms and sold in 6- to 8-inch pots or smaller containers, what appears to be one plant may actually be two to five, and they are often identified only by color. Until frosts pass, keep them indoors at night and on cold days; they do best in a cool but sunny room (about 50| to 60|). Later, for immediate effect, plant multiples together--or gently pull the cluster apart to get several plants.

To encourage winter-blooming azaleas to flower earlier and longer, put them in an especially warm pocket of your garden-- under trees, lath, or a roof overhang. If possible, provide some direct morning sun. Avoid pruning except for a light pinching soon after spring growth appears. You can cut off long stray shoots whenever they appear, or wait until they bloom and cut them for bouquets.

If drainage is poor, consider raised beds; these azaleas are especially sensitive to soggy soil. Prepare a spongy, fast-draining mixture of fine bark, peat moss (soak it thoroughly before working it into the soil), or other organic material blended with 1/3 to 1/2 native soil.

Loosen roots and plant with the rootball's top a few inches above surrounding earth. To protect exposed roots, pull soil or mulch around the sides. Then water thoroughly.

Most of these azaleas are slow growers and use moisture more slowly than fast-growing types. Between waterings, let the soil get damp-dry, like a squeezed-out sponge--but as with all azaleas, never let it dry out completely.

Fertilize lightly two or three times, starting right after spring bloom and stopping by August to let growth mature by winter. Wind, rain, or frost can blast early bloom, but mild weather soon brings new flowers.

Winter bloomers

In areas with little or no frost, the following varieties are particularly reliable for an early and long bloom season. Most are Belgian Indicas; some are related hybrids.

Red: "Chimes', a semidouble; "Lucille K.', a white-edged hose-in-hose type (flowers appear as a tube within a tube); Mme. Alfred Sanders', a double; "Red Bird' (also sold as "Red Wing'), ruffled hose-in-hose.

Pink to salmon: "Avenir', a double salmon; "California Peach', a double; "California Sunset' and "Eric Schame', salmon doubles with white edges; "Vervaeneana', a double pink with white edges and dark throat.

White: "Alaska', a single; "Albert and Elizabeth', a semidouble edged with coral; "California Snow', a double; "Rosa Belton', a single edged in mauve; "Vervaeneana Alba', a double with a green throat.

Lavender: "Nuccio's Happy Days', an especially long-blooming double.

Photo: Large, multipetaled Belgian Indica (left) provides showy winter color; most other types, including smaller-flowered Kurume (right) bloom later

Photo: In a warm site or in a mild winter, Belgian Indicas tend to bloom lightly off and on from October to June, peaking in spring as shown here. Use prunings for bouquets
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Dec 1, 1986
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