Azalea and rhododendron care and pruning questions

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I just picked up this Girard's Hot Shot Azalea and Purple Gem Rhododendron off the $5 rack at my local Lowe's. I couldn't resist.

The azalea has a thick, interesting trunk, and I'm pretty sure it's two trees.

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I like the small leaves and papery bark on the rhodo.

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Which leads me to my questions. I've read that the best time to prune and repot azalea is after they flower, and that I should remove the dead flowers and the seed pods. I marked up a photo of the foliage to clarify, because I'm having a little trouble understanding what part is what:

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Are the parts in the blue circles seed pods? Will the parts in the red rectangles become new flowers, or are those the remains of old ones? Basically do I prune back to the top or bottom arrow in the picture?

Thanks!
 

GrimLore

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Which leads me to my questions. I've read that the best time to prune and repot azalea is after they flower, and that I should remove the dead flowers and the seed pods. I marked up a photo of the foliage to clarify, because I'm having a little trouble understanding what part is what

Go through this recent post by @Mellow Mullet and afterwards read post #17 - It is a sound practice and he describes all in good detail - https://www.bonsainut.com/threads/trimming-azaleas-post-bloom.33999/

I know John and his plants and I am not being lazy, just putting you in the right direction :)

Grimmy
 

GrimLore

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Which leads me to my questions.

Looking at he picture the Light green portions in the boxes were the base of blooms. The brown shriveled stuff is flowers that have dried up and the single long stem coming from them is the stamen from the flowers. Those can and should be removed.
To the right and lower left of the blue circle there is a green branch, often called a whorl that grows in somewhat of a circle around the above. Remove the dried up center and cut or trim whorls that you may or may not want to keep.
This all sounds time consuming and it is... But hey - it is Bonsai!

Grimmy
 

shinmai

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The parts you have marked should indeed be pruned off. After the plant has finished blooming, it will rest for a while, maybe a couple of weeks, and then begin a flush of new growth. It is that new growth that at the end of summer will form flower buds for next spring.
My own observation, for what it's worth: first, you got a couple of great trees to start with, they are both prolific and beautiful bloomers. Remember that starting out with garden center material is not exactly the same as buying a specimen satsuki from a specialty nursery. You're starting with what is basically an unsupervised weed in a bucket of crappy soil, almost certainly filled completely with a root mass that is like one big brillo pad. When I get one home, the first thing I do is go through the canopy and nip off broken branches, thin little dead twigs, and branches that are obvious losers. Once I've identified the front, I prune for shape, and leave a little foliage on unless it's starting to push out some new green shoots already. I then go ahead and pull it from the bucket, and cut down the big cylindrical mass of roots and try to poke and or wash out as much of the old soil as I can. I've taken as much as three fourths of the root mass off with no apparent ill effects, and then I pot it in pure kanuma.
I have a Hotshot on my porch right now. This is what yours will look like with its' party clothes on in the spring:
hotshot.jpg
 

GrimLore

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The parts you have marked should indeed be pruned off. After the plant has finished blooming, it will rest for a while, maybe a couple of weeks, and then begin a flush of new growth. It is that new growth that at the end of summer will form flower buds for next spring.

You are correct Sir in many ways - here in the North East with our past unusual Winter and Spring it is now time, our time span limits @ManSkirtBrew must do his work sooner then later, within a week for good results. Our season is shorter then usual this year.

Easy enough for you and me but to anyone asking is a lot of chopping. Small time frame but if I recorded what I did to a Gumpo serious shrub last week only a few would understand it was the only way to go :)

Grimmy
 
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Okay, got to work today! So the azalea has three distinct trunks. I'm not sure if it makes sense to bare root them to separate, or grow them as a multiple trunk tree. They seem very solidly joined together. The root mass is so tight I haven't been able to dig further down the trunk yet. I'll have to do some serious root work to get there, and I want to decide the basic shape of the tree first. Your thoughts?

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As for cleaning up after flowering, I'm still a little lost after reading all those threads. Would I snip off the flower bases individually (red lines), or would I snip the whole group of them at once (blue line at the bottom)?

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Rhododendron next post...
 
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On to the rhodo. I did mostly bare root him, and discovered a nice trunk flare. I cleaned up the branches a bit and got it into a training pot.

Where I'm stuck is I don't know where to go next. It definitely needs more cutting back and shaping. I've looked at a million bonsai azalea/rhodo pictures, read all manner of articles, but when I look at the tree I just don't see the form in it. I'd love to have someone local to work with, but it's going to be a while before I can make a club meeting.

Any advice on direction is welcome. Really I'll be happy to have a tree with flowers at some point, but it would be great to develop an eye for how to make a shrub into a bonsai.

I made a full 360 spin around video for you.

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0soyoung

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As for cleaning up after flowering, I'm still a little lost after reading all those threads. Would I snip off the flower bases individually (red lines), or would I snip the whole group of them at once (blue line at the bottom)?

View attachment 196548

Rhododendron next post...
It will readily break off at or about your blue line. Just hold the stem as you are in the photo and grip the ovaries between your thumb and forefinger of your other hand - bend and it pops right off (of course, you can use scissors to cut at the blue line instead). It is a fun spring game called 'dead heading the rhodies'. On most small leafed, evergreen azaleas like we use for bonsai, it is too tedious to dead head. Instead, just shear the foliage and stems back to the canopy base you want, then clean off the ovary remainders (at your blue line).
 

shinmai

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[1] As to the azalea, cut at the blue line. Do the same with the rhodi. Those are the pistils, which you do not want making babies.
[2] you will drive your self crazy trying to separate the azalea trunks, and probably kill one if not all. If it were mine, I’d develop it as a clump.
[3] The rhodi looks like it has great potential to develop a slanting canopy, especially with that great lower branch. To get started on developing a direction, clean all the dead twigs, spent flowers, etc., so you can see more of the bones of the tree. Then contemplate heading in a direction like this:
CB5BEE4E-D5D9-4837-8587-CD35CE0BADDD.jpeg
And remember, it will grow back prodigiously. It’s almost hard to over-prune at this juncture. You can cut way back, and then shape and/or wire the flush of new growth pretty much from September to February.
 

shinmai

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Any time, brother. We're all in this together. It's like Bill Murray said in "Stripes"..."There's something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us!"
If you are cutting off anything bigger than a twig, use a knob cutter, rather than a concave cutter. Cut a bit short of the main branch, and then take tiny little bites with the knob cutter to smooth it out. You'll have less of a problem with those big ugly round wounds the concave cutter leaves. Smaller branches, leave a stub, then come back later after die-back and clean it up...unless you want to do like I did today, and drop $170 on a Masakuni crescent cutter that gives you a completely flush cut, which will heal over beautifully. I tried cleaning some up with an X-acto knife, and nearly sacrificed a finger tip--and I am definitely not Yakuza.
 
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The saga continues! Deadheaded and removed a bunch of branches on the rhodo that didn't seem to belong. I like the slanting shape you hinted at, and decided on the front of the tree.

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The azalea's multiple trunks are all crossing, and some have grown together. Not sure where to go here.

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I did cut a few of the more egregious offenders down, and repotted it a little higher in the pot. Looks like some nice roots I can develop over time.

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Now I just hope they survive their repotting adventure. My last purple gem rhododendron was not so lucky...

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shinmai

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Okay, so this is just my opinion.....

Looking at the photo of the rhododendron [without benefit of seeing it in 3D, I think the third vertical limb from the left has to go. I can also see dozens of bullshit twigs that should be pruned out to reduce the visual clutter. Really, getting rid of those will make it easier to see the structure you have to work with. I think for both the rhodi and the azalea, you should apply some of the basic, traditional bonsai admonitions about pruning:

Cut out any branches that go straight up or straight down.

Lateral branching should be on the outside of a curve, not the inside [leading the eye to the edge of the tree].

If you have two branches running parallel [common in both rhododendrons and azaleas] pick the stronger, and cut off the other.

Cut off anything that comes straight out toward the viewer [the whole 'poke you in the eye' thing].

With both, you want branches that bifurcate, so look for pairs and prune away 'third wheels'.

Eliminate "U" shaped pairs of branches, a particularly irritating trait of rhododendron azaleas. Pick one, and wire it into something that fits. Then turn the end of it into a pair after the bud at the end blooms next year.

Don't be afraid to cut--if you screw up, these things are amazing at giving you new material to work with.

Azaleas have a habit of filling up the canopy to maximum density. That's bad in a horticultural sense, because a cluttered canopy prevents a lot of leaves from getting light. If they're not going to get sunlight, why bother to have them there? A cluttered canopy is also a four star hotel for insects and other pests. Remember the Japanese adage about leaving enough space for the birds to fly through the tree.

When pruning, stop once in a while and look down from the apex of the tree, and see how many branches block others below them. Wire what you can to improve that, and prune away the rest.

When you're trying to figure out what to do next, hold the pot at arms' length above your head. Look up into the tree as if you were in a forest, looking up at a real tree. It's like the old thing about how do you carve a statue of an elephant? You start with a block of marble, and cut away anything that doesn't look like an elephant.

Now, that being said, azaleas are the singular subset of bonsai in which you are excused from making something look like a thousand year old tree with a trunk base that looks like Jabba the Hutt. You get a month, maybe six weeks, to enjoy the blossoms. Pruning, wiring, and shaping are about the best possible display of next year's flowers. If it looks like a tree into the bargain, that's a bonus, but keep in mind that your real purpose is to prepare a canopy that will let the blossoms strut their stuff in the spring. So much of the information here and elsewhere is two-dimensional. Try to think of your canopy surface in three dimensions, with an eye toward producing bud sites that are arrayed in a radial fashion, like the spokes of a wheel. Think of the blossoms as being at the end of the spokes, in order to display the maximum amount of surface view of the full perimeter of the blossom. They should ideally just touch the edges of each other, not cross or block.

This will no doubt sound weird, but there is a chef's trick for getting the pin bones out of a side of salmon. You drape it over the top of an inverted bowl, and the ends of the bones poke up out of the flesh and can be pulled out with tweezers. Think of the same concept with your canopy--each stem with a blossom bud is like one of those pin bones, radially extended to elevate and separate each blossom for maximum effect.

Sorry if this sounds like a late night rant, but this is all stuff I've come to understand and apply to my own work, or stuff that reflects a lesson I've learned the hard way. Take what you can use, and round-file the rest.

And if you screw something up, know that there is a Japanese proverb..."Even monkeys fall from the trees some times."
 

KiwiPlantGuy

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The saga continues! Deadheaded and removed a bunch of branches on the rhodo that didn't seem to belong. I like the slanting shape you hinted at, and decided on the front of the tree.

View attachment 196733

The azalea's multiple trunks are all crossing, and some have grown together. Not sure where to go here.

View attachment 196735View attachment 196734

I did cut a few of the more egregious offenders down, and repotted it a little higher in the pot. Looks like some nice roots I can develop over time.

View attachment 196737View attachment 196738

Now I just hope they survive their repotting adventure. My last purple gem rhododendron was not so lucky...

View attachment 196736

Hi ManSkirtBrew,
I will keep this brief as the previous post gave some fantastic advice.
If it were my Azalea I would choose the “ Clump” style as the Bonsai.
You may not want to do this yet, until your confidence has gained strength, but I would chop all the trunks to between 3-6 inches, keeping the best 3 or 4, it will backbud profusely, so you can choose your shape of branch structure from there.
My photo below is only 1-2 years old, and also attempting a clump style, and needs work wiring etc.
B6BD8157-ABAB-45C3-877C-05ECFC7688C0.jpeg
This is about 6-8 inches tall, as a trial to learn how to water/grow in a bonsai pot and I can’t wait for it to flower in the Spring (Southern Hemisphere)
Charles
 
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dozens of bullshit twigs that should be pruned out

Operation bullshit twigs commences: round one.

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chop all the trunks to between 3-6 inches, keeping the best 3 or 4, it will backbud profusely, so you can choose your shape of branch structure from there

I was considering doing this, based on all the azalea reading I've done. Here's a first pass. Thoughts?

360 view. You spin me right round, baby, right round.

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shinmai

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Both look good. Now you can really get a clear look at the bones. I personally think both have a lot of potential. Best of luck with them.
 
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Well, the rhodo didn't make it. That's 2 for 2 on the purple gem rhododendron for me. The azalea looks happy and healthy, but no new buds yet.

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shinmai

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After a little detective work, I can tell you that the death of the rhododendron was not your fault. It was, in fact, dying when you got it.
Purple Gem and many other rhododendrons have exfoliating bark, but this happens when a new cambium layer has formed and the outer layer sloughs off. In even your earliest photos, the trunk of that tree is completely bare.
After repotting two that did not bud, and became brittle [and dead], I did some research and found that these varieties are vulnerable to bark split. It usually happens when they come out of dormancy, fluid rises in the tree, and they get hit by a really hard freeze. Like all liquids, the fluid expands when it freezes, and the bark splits partially or completely. If partially, it might be salvageable using grafting paraffin. If the trunk is girdled, the tree is going to die—as much as six months after the fact. It will look healthy in spring or early summer, but it’s already ‘dead tree walking’. This happens at the grower, long before the nursery pot is in your hands at Home Depot.
The lesson is that when we look at the trunks of nursery stock, if the trunk bark is separated, pick a different one. I have enough guilt over trees I killed because I screwed up. Thought you might like to know that the grower should never have sold that one in the first place.
 

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