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Grumpy Just Slaughtered His Azaleas!

- Steve Bender
Steve Bender

I know it sounds cruel, but they had it coming.

Nearly 25 years ago, Judy and I bought a new house in Hoover, Alabama. It needed a “foundation planting” of shrubs, lest the neighbors think us different and weird. Thus, I went to the garden center, bought six ‘George Lindley Taber’ Southern Indica azaleas in two-gallon pots, and spaced them four feet apart and three feet in front of the foundation. They looked nice. I planted flowers in front of them, so the neighbors wouldn’t judge us lazy and strange.

But those azaleas were sneaky. Southern Indica azaleas, you see, get big. Like eight feet tall and wide over a period of years if you let them. As I was often out-of-town traveling on assignment for Southern Living and becoming famous in the process, I let them. I knew that if I didn’t prune them at just the right time, I wouldn’t get flowers the following spring. Who needs azaleas that don’t bloom?

Eventually, my neglect exacted a price. The azaleas reached the bottoms of the front windows. They also ballooned out so far that there was no room for flowers to go in front. When their lowest branches stretched down to touch the soil, they rooted in place and continued their steady march outward.

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This spring their insufferable presumption brought me to the breaking point. Just who had granted them permission to swallow the front of my house? Discipline must be restored – by a good set of loppers.

In the top photo, you see recently disciplined azaleas on one side of the porch and yet-to-be-disciplined azaleas cowering in fear on the other. This was not a time for halfway measures. I reduced the shrubs in size by more than half, leaving many branches ugly and leafless. Then I hauled the severed body parts to the curb, where city workers picked them up to turn into biofuel for city vehicles. (They really do this.)

- Steve Bender
Steve Bender

Did I kill my azaleas? No, no, no. Like holly and boxwood, evergreen azaleas can be cut back to bare wood with no serious damage. Sure, they’ll be naked for a couple of weeks, but then they’ll leaf out and green up and no one will be the wiser. By pruning them immediately after their spring flowers dropped, I gave them plenty of time to make new flower buds for next year.

To be honest, I wished I’d never planted them, but digging up these giants now would require a backhoe. I should have planted shrubs that get no more than three feet tall and wide. Of course, this would have reduced our city’s supply of biofuel, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

The lesson here is the same one learned by people who plant tall-growing crepe myrtles close to the house and are forced to chop them into ugly stumps every year, so they can see out of their windows. Consider how big something will grow and choose the right spot.

I didn’t and now my azaleas look like this. The neighbors think we’re weird.

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