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Taking on my first ever project, but I'm lost!

Memphis, TN

Hello there all --

After moving from state to state for my career, my family has finally been given the opportunity to settle down. I have never really attempted gardening before, all of the places I've lived weren't really "mine" so it was easy to dismiss any feelings of responsibility to do more than mow the lawn. Anyway, now I'm buying this home I've rented for 9 months and my spouse and I want to revitalize the somewhat ugly front lawn.

The lawn is really small, about 400 sq ft, takes no time at all to mow. It has a gigantic oak in the front yard that hangs over the front of the house. There are two azalea plants on either side of the front steps. One gets more sun because of this giant oak tree, so their growth is significantly different (the one that gets more sun is much larger). We want to flesh out both sides of the front steps, but before I start I want to ask a couple of questions since I know practically nothing:

1) Is it possible to get the azaleas to grow more symmetrically given the issue with the oak tree?
2) If not, should I dig up the azaleas? Can they be replanted elsewhere? I don't want to kill them.
3) Are there any plants that I can put here and get somewhat symmetrical appearance given the shading issue.

The front of the house faces west, and the oak is on the southwest corner. Because of the size of the tree, the azalea beneath it gets practically no sun during the day and is at least half the size of the azalea on the opposite side.

FYI. I'm a real beginner here so use small words. The only reason I know they are azaleas is because my neighbor told me :P

Ashland, OR

> 1) Is it possible to get the azaleas to grow more symmetrically given
> the issue with the oak tree?

Very doubtful, unfortunately.

I skip question 2 because I have no experience with moving azaleas.

> 3) Are
> there any plants that I can put here and get somewhat symmetrical
> appearance given the shading issue.

I would abandon symmetry as a goal. I realize that if you really crave it, I can advise this all I want and you'll still want it. :) But with substantially different light conditions in the two locations, it's unlikely that two specimens of the same plant, any plant, will grow to the same size. Also, whenever you seek symmetry, something always seems to die or get eaten by something, or in some other way defy that symmetry.

One possible solution could be to take out the unhappy azalea, and replace it with a completely different plant that is happier in the shady situation. You might be ale to achieve a closer match in general bulk, and if not, you'll at least have a happier plant.

Another possible solution could be to make the unhappy azalea just one participant in a grouping of plants. You could echo some of the plants with the other azalea, to have a more continuous look. For example, you could have the sad azalea, sweet box (another shrub), and sweet woodruff (a low-growing ground cover) on one side, and then put the same sweet woodruff under the happier azalea. Don't go with this exact plan - I haven't researched it at all, it's just an example. :)

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

Hi Denvus, welcome to Dave's Garden and also congrat's on becoming a home / garden owner.

Is there any chance you could send in a picture of the troubled area to give a sense of scale of the problem, some times plants are just too mature or large root areas that IF you dig them up all wrong, then yes your right, you will kill them but, there are manym many ways that maybe your problems could be solved so a pic would help greatly.

central, NJ(Zone 6b)

There are shrubs that are similar in looks to an azalea so if you really want to remove the one that is not doing well you can just replace it with a different type of flowering shrub and you'll get the symmetry you're looking for
for example you can go with a dwarf or compact Rhododendron

Lexington, KY(Zone 6b)

Aren't oak trees a problem to begin with, or just in relation to vegetable gardens?

Memphis, TN

Thank you all for the responses.

@Rambling -- I agree with the symmetry comment. I advised my wife on that this morning. She is really into the idea of both sides looking exactly the same.

@WeeNel -- a picture may be a good idea. I will try to get one in the morning before work and post it. I can say that the scale is pretty small.

I did misrepresent the discrepancy in size between the azaleas. The one that gets more sun is at least 4x larger than the one in shade. However the one in shade is significantly more populated with flowers. I'm sure the sunny azalea needs trimming, something else I may have to learn how to do, haha.

(Pam) Warren, CT(Zone 5b)

I cut my azaleas way back as soon after flowering as possible. They bloom on old wood, so trimming them before flowering or too late in the summer means you cut off the flower buds and lose blooming for a year. You can significantly control shape and size with the pruning, so that may be as close to symmetrical as you're going to get. No two shrubs are going to perform the same way if one is in sun and one is in shade.

Pic 1: The first of 3 Azaleas is blooming. It is completely covering a window. These shrubs are very old, were here when DH first came to the house in 1978. I hadn't pruned them in quite a while so they were huge.

Pic 2: As soon as it went by, I cut it way back, then waited for the other two.

Pic 3: Final shape.

Pic 4: You can get pretty drastic if necessary. This is an Azalea that had been engulfed by a huge vine for years. It still had one branch sticking out with gorgeous blooms on it. You can see the thin dead sticks below and behind the flowering branch. When I removed the overgrown vine, the Azalea was very mishapen, so I cut the whole thing down to about 18." By the end of the summer it had filled in and now is a symmetrical small shrub. I think it probably won't bloom well until next year, but the shrub is saved.

Thumbnail by Pfg Thumbnail by Pfg Thumbnail by Pfg Thumbnail by Pfg
Opp, AL(Zone 8b)

Azaleas can get HUGE, so as soon as you trim it "like you like it," it'll go right back to doing whatever it is that it wants to do. Ideally, any plant would be planted only where it has room to be itself. So when a shrub has been planted so that it must be trimmed to fit in its' spot, one can choose to constantly trim a meatball, yearly perform drastic surgery, let it eat a walkway/window view, or kill/move it. If you don't really like it, and it's not sentimental, you've got nothing to lose by replacing either or both with something that doesn't trouble you, either to look at, or by wasting your time.

(After making sure there are no utilities buried in the area,) there's no reason to not dig it out and attempt moving it. As a general rule with moving any woody and/or well-established plant, the bigger/deeper chunk/ball of roots you excavate, the higher the chances of survival. I would trim at least half of it (in regard to mass of leaves, not necessarily plant size, the plant needs leaves to recover more quickly,) to make it more lightweight, and to give the plant less mass to support since some of its' roots will be lost. Water well 2-3 days before digging, to make sure it's not thirsty when dug, but area is not too muddy for you to work (or whatever interval you determine appropriate to achieve this in your particular soil.) It's not a potted plant, so I make no attempt to trim or remove old soil in these situations. Having the hole where you want it to go prepared is always a good idea. Put plant in new hole (same size as needed to have the plant at the same level with the surrounding soil that it was before) right away. I like to water the hole, then put in the plant, since I know the roots are already wet from my recent pre-watering. Then water lightly, just enough to make the surface even, DON'T pack it down, let the roots have an easy time penetrating the loose new boundary.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

The 2 Azaleas might be different sizes for other reasons, and most of these reasons suggest the answer: Dig them out and replace with something that will handle a wider range of lighting.

They might not be the same variety. Some get quite large, others stay much smaller. If you can ID the one you like, then remove the other and plant another of the one you like.

There might be something under the soil, perhaps a chunk of concrete left over from building, or shallow soil for whatever reason. If you start digging and find a problem it will have to be solved; no plant is going to do well there if the soil is too shallow, or there is a chunk of concrete under it.

They might not be the same age. Perhaps the smaller was a replacement for one that died, and has not caught up yet. The answer here is to take good care of them until they have grown to the right size.

I think I would try this:
1) Prune the larger plant. Not too severely. Prune the smaller only if it has some branches growing in an awkward way, or dead twigs.

2) Fertilize and mulch them.

3) Add some companion plants. If there are some that will handle both conditions (sun and shade), try for the same plants. If the conditions are too extreme then go with plants that really look different. Don't try to match. While you are digging holes for the new plants keep your eyes open to see if there is a soil problem on one side or the other.

4) Add some color (annuals) in front of the area while the plants are small, and still growing to take their proper place in the layout.

Memphis, TN

Thank you all for the other responses, especially the information on azaleas. I didn't want to get a picture until I had cleaned up the front so that everything would be as clear as possible. You can see the huge discrepancy in the azaleas as well as the overhang of the tree causing the issue. I will definitely prune the azaleas back after they stop flowering, but any further suggestions now that the situation is visible would be welcome as well.

Thumbnail by Denvus
Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

I see your problem. I assume it is a recent photo. In that case, it is too late to move the azaleas since they are growing and leafed out. Transplanting any shub should be done when they are dormant (not growing on flowering). If I remember correctly, they are evergreen (don't lose their leaves).

What I would do if I really wanted both azaleas, I would trim the larger one to match the other. With proper pruning, you can shape any tree and shrub. It all depends on where you cut the limb/branch.

Ok, having said that, look at a branch and where there is another branch or start of. If you cut above that side branch and that branch is growing outwards, that is the way it will continue to grow. You want to prune to encourage branches to grow outwards, not inwards or the center will be too crowded and can die. Shape can be done with correct and planned pruning.

Hard to explain without the ability to draw. I would search your library for a pruning book. One that I recommend is "Pruning Guide" by Tom Stevenson. It is the one I learned from.

Memphis, TN

Thank you for the guidance blomma! I'll definitely look into some pruning information. Can the azaleas be pruned now or will I have to wait until they are no longer flowering?

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

According to my book, the main reason for pruning azaleas, other than removing dead branches, is to train growth to the desired form. Time to do it is late spring. There will then be time enough for the new shoots to grow out and develop flower buds before fall.

According to my book:

The need for pruning may occur when grown in shady plances where there is a tendency to an open or unsymmetrical type of growth due to crowding or lack of light.

Azaleas can be severely cut back before growth starts in the spring. Or can be done after blooming.

Keep in mind that a shrub has a mind of its own and likewise it will grow. It will be an ongoing occurance.

I would suggest that you tackle both shrubs and prune them the same. You can even cut them down to the ground and allow each to grow, then train them as I wrote in the above post.

Would it be possible for you to trim back some of the branches on the shade tree to give that shrub more light.

Memphis, TN

I may look into trimming them both back drastically then and attempting to train their growth with them starting from the same size.

Technically I'm not supposed to deal with the tree. What the picture doesn't show you is that we live on a corner lot, and power lines run directly through the street side of the tree. When we were renting I attempted to get my realty company to deal with it to no avail. The power company comes out and trims it now and again, but the last time they were here I was told I wasn't supposed to do it myself due to how close it is to power lines. Don't know how true that is though.

(Pam) Warren, CT(Zone 5b)

If you want to see flowers this year, wait until right after blooming. If you prune now, you will be removing this year's flower buds. If you don't care, by all means go ahead. The shrub will not be damaged.

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

It is probably true. The town here also cut off branches that are too close to power lines. They don't want you to do it for safety reason. Call them and see if you can get them to come out, or if you can hire a tree trimmer to do it.

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

Now I see your problem, so I'd go have a good look at the smaller of the 2 azalea's to look closely all around the stems to check for any damage or cut marks, this is to check first or all for the shrub being previously cut down for whatever reason, (weather damage, wind burning the foliage, weed killer killing off parts, but would think it would kill the whole plant, If you find nothing to indicate the shrub being cut back then you need to look for other reasons.

Does the tall bushier shrub (Left side of pic) get more water, better soil, better light, is the overhang of the tree causing the small shrub to suffer because of lack of light, it's all a case of look, watch for a good few days / weeks just to gage the sunlight, moisture and watch for any animal / insects / bugs that could be causing a stunting of the smaller shrub.

Sometimes there just is no real explanation why 2 shrubs of the same type, colour, everything like for like, and they just dont both grow at the same pace, As I grow lot's of Rhododendron's and Azalea's, I can tell you light and soil treatment are the main reasons for one doing really well and the other sitting there wondering what is happening.

To be absolutely honest, IF I were you, I would never cut away the lovely lush growth from the larger shrub (it takes ages for an azalea to reach that stage and it is beautiful, it would be like cutting the hair off the winning beauty queen just because she has done well and let the ugly girl take the credit for being uglier.

I would go choose another shrub that can maybe tolerate a bit more shade than the good Azalea, try keep the same colour but maybe go for a different texture to the foliage, this way it wont really matter IF they dont grow the same hight, but choose something that you can enjoy, maybe with a perfume or memory of some time /person / place..
I think it would be criminal to chop up a perfectly healthy shrub because a weaker one is spoiling the appearance at the front of your house.

Now for the BIG tree that is beginning to block out light, it must be removing lot's of water and nutrients from the surrounding soil and will continue to be a cause of concern as each year passes. We are in the same situation as you here in Scotland with overhead lines, you should go to a reputable tree surgeon and ask for a full report re-tree in question, they should tell you how the spread of the large branches could be reduced, the hight and any remedial work that would help save the tree, ask how much this work would cost to help save damage to your overhanging lines AND help the appearance of the tree as to be fair, IF the linesmen who deal with the tree problems are not interested in how a tree looks after it has been hacked by them, this indicates they know little about tree's and different types of tree's. like our power workers, they just want to go ahead and spend half an hour ruining a beautiful tree that took maybe 30 or more years to grow.
Maybe you don't like the tree but to be honest IF you cant remove it, by law, then it will be a worse outcome to have to look at a tree that looks like it is dead but not able to lay down. There's nothing you can do but live with a dreadful looking hacked up tree especially IF your not allowed to then remove it.

Hope this gives you another a way of looking at the problem and that something good can come from the problem you have.
Best regards and good luck. WeeNel.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Azaleas are shallow rooted, and the competition from the tree roots might be causing some of the problem.
You can sure try the more conservative route and see what happens.

Lightly trim if needed.
Keep them properly watered.

There is room between the small azalea and the door to plant another one, you could try that. Be very particular about soil prep. Lots of organic matter in the soil is important. If your area does not already have soil like that, then add compost.

Azaleas come from a forest floor sort of setting originally, and they thrive in the dappled light under trees. In the photo I do not see that setting a way too shady. I do not think that is the reason for the smaller plant being smaller.

Some of the other things I suggested above could still be contributing to the situation.

Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

If I remember correctly Azaleas prefer an acidic soil.

(Pam) Warren, CT(Zone 5b)

I like the idea of planting a second Azalea to get the look of a bigger shrub. That makes a lot of sense to me. It would look more symmetrical right away, and you wouldn't have to live through the 'naked' stage while the bigger one fills in from a drastic pruning.

Dallas, TX

How sad about your oak tree. I have 2 large oaks and my neighbor has one that borders our property. They are grand trees. Thank goodness we are not on lots that are located where the power lines are. In Dallas, the utility folks butcher trees right and left. Most of these trees have a large v-shaped notched right down the middle. I'm surprised that any can survive, but they do. That said, if the oak is either a Live Oak or a Red Oak, it is susceptible to Oak Wilt disease. Don't know if oak wilt has hit TN, but it has devastated trees in parts of TX. It even killed a magnificent 200 year old Live Oak, known as the Treaty Oak, in Austin, TX.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

They do that sort of pruning here, too, and the trees I saw a few years ago treated that way are now being removed. :-(

Yes, Azaleas prefer more acidic soil. The best way to get that is to add lots of compost, organic soil conditioner when you plant, then keep them mulched with bark, leaves and so on. There are acid reacting fertilizers, but I think that is a short lived solution, and does not maintain the acidic soil they like. Adding organic matter to the soil is a long term solution.

(Pam) Warren, CT(Zone 5b)

Dianna, what do you think of soil conditioners, like Plantone for perennials, Hollytone for acid lovers, etc? I mulch with shredded pine, is that enough?

Enterprise, AL(Zone 8b)

Azaleas love growing under the shade of large Oak trees, I can tell by the picture that the oak is plenty far away from the Azaleas not to cause them a problem. The real problem might be the one in the sun, it seems Azalea lace wing bugs love to attack azaleas that are in the sun. You will seldom have that problem with the ones in the shade. I guess the point I am making is that Azaleas do well in the shade. I would prune the large one down to the size of the small one and leave the small one alone, except for the stray limbs that need pruning just to maintain the shape.

Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 7a)

Sorry for the interruption from "johnson01" - he/she was a spammer, and they're gone.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

I am not familiar with the specific products you list.
I am most familiar with the local soils, and products, and with the methods I have used to improve the soil in my garden and that of clients.
You need to get to know your own garden, your own soil type and so on. What nutrients does it already have? What is it lacking? What is the pH? and so on. When you know these things you can better plan what to add to your soil to help the plants.

Pine can stop some plants from growing, if it is used too much. There are not a lot of pines around here, so the little bit of pine needles or chipped material I get from the tree companies is not enough to slow the plants at all. For me, pine is just fine. If you are gardening under pine trees that might be a problem. Tree companies deliver the chipped materials for free. It is coarse, so I use it on top of the soil, about 6" deep to slow the weed growth, mostly. But it also decomposes over time, so supplies some acidifying, and some nutrients.

Around here you can buy soil conditioner that is mostly redwood, fir or other sawdust with some nitrogen added. If you read the ingredients it may say "forestry byproducts" and may include some manures (chicken, worm castings, bat guano or other exotic things). It is also possible to buy these materials in bulk, by the truckload. We do that for most of the landscapes we install. Several cubic yards of nitrified redwood soil conditioner, spread and rototilled.
There is a company just a few miles from me that collects all sorts of wood such as pallets, grinds it and then composts it. That material is available by the cubic yard as soil conditioner.
Used to be that a company would collect oak leaves and the decomposing leaves, bag it and sell it. Very popular for shade plants (including azaleas). The environmentalists stopped them, so Oak Leaf Mould is no longer available in bags. However, if you take a couple of buckets or sturdy garbage bags out under any local oak tree...
Peat moss is another organic soil conditioner that is popular, though more expensive. I know it is used for house plants, and is available in compressed bales that are large enough to help with plants in the garden.
I have picked up stall cleanings from the local stables. Most often they are bedding in pine shavings. They carefully clean the stalls, removing the wet and dirty shavings, but saving the dry. Then the waste is piled up and starts composting. They will give it away, and often load it for you with their tractor. (Obviously, into a truck!) or you can shovel it yourself into your own bags and buckets.
The pine in this material has never been an issue in my garden, and the urine and manure have been composting, sometimes for several weeks, other times just a few days. I try to get the older material. I have planted directly in this material, and the plants do just fine.

Any of these materials are fine to add to our soils. The local soils are seriously lacking in organic matter, and somewhat alkaline, so adding anything at all is good, it is not so critical that it be labeled for specific plants or groups of plants.

If you make your own compost you can use it as soon as you can no longer tell what it used to be. The material may still be a bit chunky, it does not have to be super fine when you are mixing it into the planting holes for plants from about 4" pots on up. Smaller plants might need finer compost blended with the soil.

ANY sort of organic matter added to the soil will help with shade loving plants, because just about all shade loving plants evolved in a forest floor setting. Tons of leaves, fallen branches and trees decaying year after year... Some forest floors are so deep in organic matter you can no longer find actual soil. The roots are growing in pure organic matter.

Some soils are naturally high in organic matter, for example peat soils. There is an area near me like that. In that sort of soil you do not need to add MORE organic matter, the soil IS organic matter already. I would be concerned about a lack of minerals in soil like that.

(Pam) Warren, CT(Zone 5b)

Thanks for all the info. Here on the east coast we have acidic soil naturally, and most things I like to grow do well in it.

I'm surprised you're not familiar with the Espoma products I mentioned, on this end of the country they are a staple. Plantone is their general purpose conditioner, it may help the plants which prefer a higher Ph. Hollytone is meant for Rhodies, Azaleas and other acid lovers. They also make Rosetone and Gardentone for veggies. My understanding is that they are organic, so probably consist of the type of ingredients you mention.

I'm lucky to have very nice soil to start with, and constantly add to it as I like close planting and want to be sure not to deplete it. I do compost, but it's a drop in the bucket of what I go through around here, so I do buy other amendments.

I always read your posts, you are a wealth of information. Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge and experience.


Murfreesboro, TN(Zone 7a)

I love the -Tone products (I'm on my second bag of general PlantTone with my perennial borders.)

Your home has great "bones" for doing a formal or informal style garden. But with the shade of the tree and the angle of the sidewalk, you're probably not going to get perfect symmetry no matter what you plant.

I would consider digging the azaleas and moving them this *can* move them now, but they will probably sulk all summer, and depending on how hot and dry we get, they may still fry even with a lot of TLC.

With the tree you have, I would suggest planting something like a medium-height crape myrtle on the left-hand side of the walk as you face the house. With time and careful pruning, it will develop a beautiful branching structure that won't overwhelm your house, but will help visually balance things from the view from your curb. I'd also suggest some herbaceous perennials - hostas or something else that will maintain a more even growth rate each year since everything starts from scratch each year.

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