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Azaleas and camellias are a harbinger of spring in Valley gardens

Azaleas are seen in full bloom as visitors walk amongst the colorful display at the Shinzen Friendship Garden.
Azaleas are seen in full bloom as visitors walk amongst the colorful display at the Shinzen Friendship Garden. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Azaleas and camellias that grow and bloom best in their native cool, rainy Pacific rim climate zones do surprisingly well in the central San Joaquin Valley’s long hot summers and short dry winters. If azaleas and camellias are planted in rich, well-draining soil where they are sheltered from the afternoon sun, they often become the springtime showpieces in our gardens.

Elinor Teague

Feed azaleas and camellias after they’ve finished blooming with a low-number granular fertilizer formulated for shade plants. Shade plant fertilizers contain extra sulfur that lowers our high soil pH (highly alkaline) to neutral or slightly acidic levels, which allow plants’ roots to more easily take up iron and other nutrients. You can also sprinkle a half cup per bush of sulfur granules twice a year over the root zone and lightly scratch the granules into the soil. Water well after each monthly fertilization during the summer.

In arid climates such as ours, alkaline salts build up in the soil over time and leave a white crusty coating on top of the soil or mulch. Thoroughly drench the soil underneath camellias and azaleas twice a year to wash the salts deeper down into the soil – well beneath the roots.

Camellias and azaleas set their buds for next spring’s bloom during the months just after they’ve finished flowering. Any pruning should be done before bud set. Trim azaleas and camellias to preserve their naturally lovely shape, don’t shear them. Cut back wayward branches to another branch junction and remove congested growth in the center of the bush.

Pick up fallen camellia blossoms regularly to prevent the spread of the camellia petal blight fungus which is carried by splashing rain or irrigation water onto the flowers. The petals first turn brown, then the entire flower is affected and falls off prematurely. After this year’s flowering is finished, replace or top mulches underneath camellia bushes to remove or cover fungal spores.

Reminder: As of writing this column, Fresno had received just 1.64 inches of rain for the season to date. Average rainfall into early February should be 5.69 inches with an average annual total for the entire year of 11.61 inches. It would not be unreasonable for us to anticipate another severe drought year ahead.

Many citrus trees in the Central Valley have begun to drop their ripening crops. Insufficient irrigation is the primary cause of early crop loss in fruit and nut trees. The scant rainfall we’ve received so far this winter and spring has not been nearly enough to soak the soil or to thoroughly irrigate root systems. To help prevent crop loss, deep irrigate citrus, other fruit trees and nut trees throughout the coming months when the top 4 inches of soil has dried or at least once a week. Allow water to slowly trickle down into the top 12 inches of soil underneath the tree canopy. Avoid over-pruning, which often forces a heavy flush of new growth that requires increased irrigation.

Irrigate mature landscape trees deeply and slowly as they exit dormancy these next few weeks to help them survive another drought year and limit dieback and limb loss.

Elinor Teague: etgrow@comcast.net