On New Year’s Eve, I took a stroll along our Judge Arthur Solomon Camellia Trail and was caught by surprise. Sure there were extraordinary camellia selections blooming but what caught my eye were the Encore azaleas. In one section, Autumn Embers was absolutely riveting with its flaming red blossoms. In another area, Autumn Sangria was stealing the show.
It’s hard to believe it was 17 years ago that I first wrote about the original six varieties. Now, with their explosion in popularity, the Encore series has swelled to 29 selections. At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, we have about a dozen varieties and they were blooming off and on all fall, even more intensely as we headed into the new year.
I am proud to call plant breeder Robert (Buddy) Lee my friend, but I will be the first to admit I didn’t realize what he had created when I received my first Encore azaleas for trial. Even though I didn’t do them justice with either bed location or the soil preparation they deserved, they performed like the winners they are.
If you are passionate about azaleas in the landscape then you’ll be the first to admit they bring some of the greatest joy while in bloom. You probably also will concur that one of the saddest moments in gardening happens as the season comes to an end. Thanks to the repeat blooming ability of the Encore series, happiness is always around the corner, spring, summer and fall.
The spring bloom of the Encore series is similar to any other azalea, simply breathtaking. But with the Encore series it seems there is always something to see as they are flushing with more growth and more blooms. The quantity of blooms is less in subsequent flushes, but enough that you’ll be reaching for the camera.
The photo opportunities during my New Year’s Eve stroll depended on geography. Repeat blooming will happen until freezing weather. In Savannah, Ga., the fall and winter have been mild, thus our current azalea bloom. In areas under winter’s grip, the plants will be dormant, gearing up for the dazzling performance that will soon come.
The Encore series is cold hardy through zone 6, and even garden centers I have spoken with as far north as Ohio touted their performance and cold hardiness. With 29 varieties you will find a wide range of colors and sizes from dwarf to intermediate when it comes to plant habit. You’ll find double blooming selections like Autumn Carnation and the glistening white Autumn Angel.
When you get yours this spring, plant them in an area receiving morning sun and afternoon shade or high filtered light. The soil should be fertile, organic-rich and acidic. Prepare the soil by adding 3 to 4 inches of organic matter and till to a depth of 10 inches. The beds need to be raised for good drainage. Plant the azaleas slightly above the depth they are growing in the container. Wet feet will kill an azalea.
Add a layer of mulch after planting and again each year. The azalea keeps the roots near the soil surface. This annual decomposition of mulch and organic matter will maintain a good environment for new roots and help in moisture retention.
While we have several planted in clusters in the camellia garden, they are also great partners with spring blooming dogwoods, redbuds and viburnums. Spring is just around the corner. As the weather allows, use the time to get your beds prepared for Encore azalea planting at your home.