By Mary-Kate Mackey
After considering light conditions and soil structure, the last major requirement for growing Encore®Azaleas is a steady supply of water. In those parts of the U.S. with year-round rainfall – unless drought prevails – gardeners don’t have to plan for watering. However, the whole West Coast is basically a modified Mediterranean climate. Rains arrive in winter. The rainfall totals rise as you head into the Northwest. But in summer, rainwater everywhere is scant.
Encore®Azaleas succeed on a consistent watering schedule. In well-draining soils, they need about an inch of water a week. This is an average. Depending on the other factors – sun, temperatures, and soil type – they may need more or less. Because they are shallow-rooted, mulch is essential for keeping moisture where the plants can use it.
Allowing the soil to dry out between watering will stress your plants and make them more vulnerable to pests. Don’t wait for leaves to droop. You can check for dryness by pulling back a bit of mulch and touching the soil. The mulch itself can be dry, but the surface soil should remain cool and damp.
So, what’s the best way to deliver a steady supply? Your choices are watering by hand with a hose, or with in-ground sprinklers, or with a drip system tucked under the mulch. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage of hand watering is you may observe your plants’ conditions more closely as you move through the garden. You can use a watering wand or shift a hose-end sprinkler around the beds. The downside? You may not want to spend the time or effort to meet the Encores’ regular water needs. And without hose guides, you run the risk of mauling plants as you drag the hose.
A well-adjusted set of permanent low-impact sprinklers with a timer may be the key to success. To find out exactly how long to water, place a calibrated plastic water gauge – they’re often given away at home stores – into the ground near the plants. Or you can use empty cat food cans. Turn on the sprinklers and measure how long it takes for the right amount of water to arrive. The downside is that overhead watering, under certain conditions, can encourage water-borne diseases. Be sure to water early in the day so the foliage dries before nightfall.
Drip systems or soaker hoses get the water to the root zone with great accuracy and efficiency. You never water the weeds and you avoid wetting the foliage. Many kits are offered, already set up with the pieces you’ll require. Or you can create your own. Decide on one brand and stick with it. Like old-timey railroad companies with different-sized tracks, each brand varies slightly – so they don’t always fit if you cross over. The downside with drip is monitoring. You must be quick to notice if hidden tubing inadvertently gets kicked away from a plant, or if a pipe gets clipped by a tool. Otherwise your plants might die before you discover what’s wrong.
Look for the best water delivery system that works for you and your West Coast garden life. That way, you’ll enjoy the blooms and re-blooms of Encore®Azaleas for many years to come.