JARS v40n1 - A Basket Case

A Basket Case
Eleanor and Art Stubbs
West Linn, Oregon

Evergreen azaleas have usually been found as basic border plants, but they can be useful in the landscape as hedges (high or low), container plants, topiaries, espaliers, and ground covers. They grow well tumbling over walls, in rock gardens, in front of and under larger plants as "living mulches", and as bonsai and hanging baskets. My, what a plant!
The versatile evergreen azalea has many plant forms from tall and rangy to low and compact; from tight and twiggy to spreading and cascading; from broad and sprawly to tiny and upright. Their leaves vary too - round, strap-like, elliptical, lanceolate, narrow, wide, tiny, large, shiny, dull, hairy, smooth, light green, medium green, dark green, and sage green.
And what a variety of blooms! Single blooms range in size from " to the 6" bloom of 'Joan Garrett'. There are many variations in the petal shapes; hose-in-hose, semi-double, double, and even hose-in-hose double blooms which produce the many petaled rose-bud type flowers. And color! The spectrum extends from white to all shades and variations of pinks and purples to reds of both crimson and scarlet hues, light and dark. The blooms can be solid colored or have blotches, flecks, dots, stripes, and margins of other colors. They make an extravagant show when in bloom!

R. 'Double Beauty'
'Double Beauty'
Photo by David Stubbs

We became excited with the possibilities of using the evergreen azaleas we grew in our garden and small nursery in hanging baskets after the introduction of 'Pink Cascade. This hybrid by James Harris of Lawrenceville, Georgia, is a cross of R. nakaharai and the Satsuki 'Bunka'. Interestingly, this plant will cascade downward three to four feet while forming a dense mat of foliage. It is very floriferous with a rather deep salmon-pink single bloom which has a bright rose blotch. After receiving 100 plants from Mr. Harris, we lined up their green plastic baskets on the purlines of our greenhouse.

Greenhouse lined with hanging basket azaleas
Greenhouse lined with hanging basket azaleas
Photo by David Stubbs

At the same time we also received 100 plants of 'Bruce Hancock', which is a larger and more robust plant than 'Pink Cascade'. They were also put in 12" baskets as they, too, had the cascading habit as well as a lovely 3" bloom with a white throat, a pink margin, and a rose blotch. We watched their growth with interest and expectation.
The following spring the 200 plants came into glorious bloom! Visitors to the greenhouse were taken aback with the sight. "What, evergreen azaleas?" "When can we buy them?" "What other colors do they come in?"
It was that spring, too, that we began experimenting. When Herb Spady and Linda Rumgay were elected President and Vice-President respectively of the Portland Chapter, we thought it would be a clever idea to present basket plants of the evergreen azaleas, 'Herbert' (a Gable cultivar) and 'Linda R' (a sport of the Satsuki 'Eikan') as door prizes at our fall chapter meeting. 'Linda R' began looking right at home with new shoots falling gently over the sides of the basket. But 'Herbert' - that was another picture! Its branches stuck out on all sides - straight out, that is. How disappointing. The plant did not "thicken up" as we expected either. Well, strike one! 'Herbert' wouldn't make a good basket without a lot of pruning and patience. At that point we could look at other plants and make a good guess as to the plant's basket-potential. The plants had to droop a bit over the sides of the container in a relaxed manner or spread on the ground languidly and have a thick crown or center. We selected several Satsukis to try and the following were the most successful for us: 'Eikan', 'Getsutoku', 'Heiwa', 'Hi Gaza White', 'Kagetsu-muji', 'Myo Tyo', and 'Nikaino Tsuaka'.

R. 'Flaming Mame'
'Flaming Mame'
Photo by David Stubbs

During this early experimentation period, we received our first North Tisbury plants as well as the species R. nakaharai . Watching them grow, we decided that these would indeed be good basket plants. And they were. We thought the best were those with the creeping habit of growth: 'Alexander', 'Joseph Hill', 'Late Love', 'Michael Hill', 'Susannah Hill', and, the best for us, 'Red Fountain'. These plants are rather slow-growing which, we think, make them ideal for basket culture because they require little or no pruning and can stay in one basket for several seasons, if properly watered and fed. They differ from the Satsukis in their flatter growth habit on top of the basket, smaller leaves, and thickly matted overlapping branches.
We began to notice more and more plants we thought should be "basketed". We "popped" many into baskets to see if they would produce the desired results. One spectacular show was put on by 'Joan Garrett' - the Harris hybrid with the 6" single bloom of salmon-pink with a rose blotch. We chose this one because that large bloom needs to be looked "up at" rather than "down on" when growing in the border. It did need some pruning to top off the upright branches and to cause the top of the basket to thicken. But it is very successful, just choose a large basket for its planting! Other basket successful plants have been: 'Double Beauty' (Vuykiana), 'Easter Parade' (Mossholder), 'Flame Creeper' (Indicum), 'Great Expectations' (Kehr), 'Nanticoke' (Nelson's First State), 'Wendy' (Robin Hill), and 'Yaye' (North Tisbury).

R. 'Great Expectations' R. 'Joan Garrett'
'Great Expectations'
Photo by David Stubbs
'Joan Garrett'
Photo by David Stubbs

Although we do not find the mounding or mushroom shaped plants particularly good for baskets, some people like them. They can be used on patios, porches, and decks in planter boxes. A few of these plants that we have tried include: 'Balsaminiflorum' (Indicum), 'Louisa' (North Tisbury), Tiny' (Linwood), 'Uki Funei' (Satsuki), 'Yachiyo Red' (Satsuki) and the Gumpos.
We have been excited, happy, and successful in our quest of evergreen azaleas for hanging baskets. We personally had gone the gamut of other container plants in the past - mums, begonias, impatiens, geraniums, fuchsias, and annuals - and we are happiest with our evergreen azaleas because of their minimum care, the longevity of the plant, and the carry-over each year.
We're asked about the care of the baskets. Simply water as needed and feed lightly. We use Osmocote 17-7-1 2 in early spring plus foliar feeding at half strength about once a month. Here in the Northwest the baskets need to be removed from their hanging place for winter and set down in the border among other plants for wind protection. The basket can be surrounded by a mulch if desired. Some people put the plants in garages, but it is important that they do not dry out. In some parts of the country an evergreen azalea basket would need more winter protection. Perhaps setting them in an indentation in the border with a heavy mulch would suffice. We don't know for sure. How do you treat your other evergreen azaleas?
We're still learning the which, what kind, how to, when, and whereas of evergreen azalea hanging baskets. We do know that the same qualities for successful "basketing" apply to plants for large containers, planter boxes, and for trailing over walls. These are just other ways of extending the use of a good basic shrub with gorgeous spring bloom and low maintenance demands. Check out the plant first - the ultimate size, the shape, the leaf color and size - remembering that you look at the plant 12 months of the year and should enjoy it for its summer greenery and its fall and winter coloration. The bonus is when it explodes into color in spring!

The Stubbs' specialize in growing evergreen azaleas, especially those for hanging baskets, at their nursery in West Linn, Oregon.