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Cutting Back Old Azaleas

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Not sure how to prune azaleas or even if your old azaleas are worth pruning? I’ve got you covered! Cutting back azalea bushes to get healthy, new growth is simple and beneficial for your plants. Find out how to get beautiful azaleas with some easy pruning!

how to prune azaleas

Why Prune Azaleas?

What shrub erupts into beautiful blooms for several weeks in the spring then instantly reverts back into a boring shrub? That’s right, the azalea. Being from the south, I have a bit of allegiance to this classic southern plant.

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But let me tell you, when they’re done blooming, but still holding onto wilting brown flowers, they can be tough to love. Not to mention that many older homes, including ours, have yards slap-full (that’s a technical term) of these temporarily pretty plants.

The Best Time to Prune Azaleas

As with most plants, knowing when to cut back azaleas is important. And the answer is similar for many plants and shrubs. Immediately after blooming is the best time to cut back or trim azaleas.

Cutting back right after blooming gives the gardener a chance to get the dead blooms off of the plant and to shape up the shrub. If you wait and prune the azalea later in the year, there’s a chance that you could prune off next year’s blooms.

blooming azalea bushes growing under trees
Azaleas blooming in the spring

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Cutting Back Old Azaleas (Hard Pruning)

But what about those old, old azalea shrubs? The trouble with older azaleas begins with their shape. They’re hard to shape up without having bare spots and noticeable holes. The fact that I can see the side of our house through the plant is a problem. Years of trimming and shaping have left leaves just on the ends of branches and no real fullness to the shrub.

If you’re not sure how to prune azaleas, you can certainly trim here and there to shape them up. But what if your poor plant, like mine, needs a complete overhaul?

Unlike other flowering plants, such as the hydrangea, azaleas don’t need yearly cutting back. (See my full post on Why and How to Prune Hydrangeas.) But could my plants benefit from being completely cut down?

how to prune azaleas
Old, leggy azalea

While we’ve pulled up five or six azaleas over the past few years, I wondered if it was possible to bring new life to the remaining older plants. They still bloomed every year, so I knew that they were relatively healthy.

To test my “grow back better” theory, I chose a bed on the side of our house with three overgrown and honestly, ugly, azaleas. (At least on the side of the house, fewer people would be a witness to my shrub slaughter and potential gardening disaster.) 

How to Hard Prune Azaleas

I’d like to say that the process was super complicated. But in all honesty, I simply used a good hand saw for pruning azaleas back to four or five inches from the ground.                                                                                                                                                                                                       

how to prune azaleas
Old azalea cut down to the base

The bonus of cutting any plant back this far is the ease of cleaning up any vines and weeds growing up around the shrub. You can see that the azaleas are still healthy by the color of the cut sides. No dead wood here.

Now, waiting for your azaleas to grow back may take some time. I cut these particular azaleas back over a year ago. Though you will begin to see new growth just weeks after cutting back, patience is key.

How to Shape Up Azaleas

If your azaleas are younger or have lots of new growth coming in, then chances are they just need a light pruning. I gently shaped up the new growth on my azaleas several times. Now I have three very vibrant azaleas in place of the overgrown mess that was there before.

To shape up azaleas, use a good pair of hand pruners and trim off any limbs that extend beyond the shape of the bush. I usually trim a bit, then take step back to make sure the bush is shaping up the way I want.

Repeat this process until the shrub is the shape you’d like without any straggly limbs sticking out. This process can be repeated later in the year, but be wary of cutting off any buds that could be there.

how to prune azaleas
how to prune azaleas
Azaleas one year after being heavily pruned.

Not too shabby considering these azaleas are quite old. It didn’t cost me anything (but labor) to have what looks like new plants growing in our side yard. I know our next door neighbors are glad they’ve grown back.

I’m sure they’d given up all hope of ever seeing a nice looking bed on their side of our house. Some azaleas I’ll choose to dig up simply for some variety in our yard, but overall, I’m very pleased that these grew back so healthy and full.

I’d love to know if you’ve had success pruning azaleas or other shrubs to give them new life! Happy Gardening! 

Plant Pruning Guides

Not sure how to prune the various plants, bushes, and herbs in your yard or garden? Use these helpful pruning guides for great information and instructions on how to prune!

I'd love to hear from you

Lynn

Tuesday 29th of March 2022

FYI: I often see people using electric hedge trimmers to prune azaleas. NOT a good idea! When possible use hand pruners & cut back to just a smidge above a set of leaves. If not your beautiful azalea shrub will be full of deal wood & a hollowed out unhealthy center. If your azaleas aren’t flourishing do a soil test. They need alkaline soil. And please don’t mulch them over the root zone. Root zone needs air.

Courtney

Tuesday 29th of March 2022

Hi Lynn, I agree that if possible, hand pruning is always best for almost all plants. And just say no to volcano mulching! :)

A Moncrief

Sunday 27th of June 2021

I cut back my old scraggly azaleas down to nothing last fall after reading this article! I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I am so happy to report that they are back and look perfectly healthy! I would never have guessed that they would come back as awesome as they did! So proud of them! Thanks so much for sharing this article!

Courtney

Sunday 27th of June 2021

Yay! I'm so excited for you! I never cease to be amazed at how resilient some plants are. I'm so glad you shared this with me!

Michelle

Sunday 28th of June 2020

A little late to comment but thank you for the information. I just purchased 3 Encore Azaleas and planted them. It said that they will grow to be 3ft x 3 ft. I don’t see these growing that tall or wide. I cut back my old Rhododendrons. I cut them down to pretty much the stump. I left 3-4 branches above the stump. One is growing back good but the other I should of cut more down. I left more branches on the South side one to shade my hydrangea from the afternoon Sun. I’m going to cut that one more. Anyways, happy gardening and great information.

Courtney

Monday 29th of June 2020

Thank you so much, Michelle! I always thought rhododendrons were finicky about pruning, but we've had the same experience as you, they can handle some heavy duty pruning. Have a great week!

Kathy Mareska

Sunday 21st of June 2020

I'm very late to this post, but what about encore azaleas? We planted some last year, but would like advice on when/how to prune them. TIA

Courtney

Monday 22nd of June 2020

Hi Kathy! The encore azaleas would be pruned exactly the same way, right after blooming. If you're not cutting them back down to the ground, then just shape them up well after they bloom in the spring. Hope this helps!

Halsi

Sunday 3rd of May 2020

We just bought a house and I think I have some azaleas in the front yard. They are cut down so horribly that it's hard to tell but they are fighting to come to life. They are in the shade (full shade) of a very old, very large live oak. Is it possible to bring them back to life? How should I go about removing the obviously dead portions?

Courtney

Monday 4th of May 2020

Hey! Yes, it is possible to coax them back to life. Use pruning shears or a small hand saw to take off any dead limbs. Leave the limbs that are still alive and the azalea should begin to leaf out again. Azaleas do like to live in the understory of large trees, so you should be fine there. Give them time, and they should come back better than ever! Thanks for stopping by!

I'd love to hear from you

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