By Mary-Kate Mackey
After you’ve looked at light conditions – six to eight hours are prime – your next consideration is soil. Ideally, Encore® Azaleas grow best in soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, slightly on the acidic side. Simple test kits or measuring devices can let you know for sure. Most West Coast gardens will be a suitable home for your Encores, whether in clay or sandy soil, with the addition of amendments, such as pine needles, compost, or other organic materials.
Encore® Azaleas do need a soil that drains well. Dig a hole that’s at least two to three times wider than the container. Don’t dig deeper than the depth of the root ball. With clay, use a garden fork to pierce a series of 6- to 8-inch deep holes into the bottom to loosen the soil.
If you suspect your clay is too heavy, you can test by filling the planting hole halfway up with water. If it hasn’t gone down noticeably after an hour, consider creating raised beds or berms. That way you can control the drainage.
Mix your chosen amendments into the removed soil. For clay, add at an approximate ratio of one part amendment to four parts soil. This helps open up air pockets but doesn’t radically alter the original soil the roots must learn to grow into. With fast-draining sandy soil, the ratio can be higher – one to three – which helps boost its water-holding capacity.
You can also sprinkle in an organic acid fertilizer (follow package directions) with numbers like 4-3-6. By using organic fertilizers, you encourage good soil biota, which in turn, helps your Encores thrive. For areas of the West that receive high winter rainfall, an extra addition of a fertilizer like seabird guano, with numbers 0-11-0, will replenish phosphorus, which can be leached out by rains.
Remove the plant from the container and gently loosen any tightly bound roots. Place your Encore in the center of the hole, with the root ball one inch above the surrounding edges. Back fill by gently pressing the soil around the root ball with your hands. Do not step down with your feet as this may cause compaction. Water well, and then add more soil to any low spots.
Encores are shallow rooted, so they benefit from a 1- to 2-inch deep mulch. Pine needles, hemlock bark, or rough compost will keep the weeds down and the roots undisturbed. However, never let mulch gather on the base of the stems. Make sure it’s a couple of inches away.
When planting similar-sized Encores, if you want them to visually perform as a group, here’s the rule: width = spacing. That means if the tag says their eventual size is three feet across, then space them three feet apart.