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'Yellow' azaleas may be linked to December storms

Waterlogged soil can lead to iron deficiency

Azalea leaves with yellowing
This azalea shows signs of chlorosis in its new growth. Waterlogged soil likely kept the plant from accessing iron in the soil. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

Are your azaleas looking a little peaked? It may not be a lack of nutrients, but too much water.

Cindy Nalepa-Nelson, an observant longtime gardener, noticed yellowish growth on azaleas in her Land Park garden. In a walk around her neighborhood, she spotted several other examples of azaleas that were showing telltale signs of chlorosis, or yellowing of normally green leaves.

Usually, this yellowing is a sign of iron deficiency. But that doesn’t mean there’s not enough iron in the soil. Due to soil conditions, the plant’s roots couldn’t access that iron when the bush needed it for green, chlorophyll-packed leaves.

Cindy wondered if the yellow leaves could be linked to recent rain, particularly December’s deluge. According to UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners, the heavy rain likely did play a role. But it didn’t leach out the iron; it waterlogged the soil.

“Azaleas, citrus, gardenias, rhododendrons, and other plants that are adapted to acidic soil are especially prone to iron deficiency when soil pH is above about 7.5 (alkaline),” say the master gardeners. “Iron deficiency is also common when soils are cool, high in calcium, poorly drained, or waterlogged.”

Azalea in shadow
Here's another azalea with chlorosis. Notice the green veins
in the yellowish leaves.
Plants can’t access iron (or several other nutrients) when their roots are standing in water. Azaleas – especially older foundation bushes – may be stuck in spots with less than ideal drainage such as next to the house, in concrete beds or under trees. If the bushes stay waterlogged, that can lead to crown rot and death.

Iron deficiencies tend to be more common in clay soils; the iron becomes “locked” in the soil and unavailable for plant roots.

Other signs of iron deficiency: Stunted or malformed new growth; mottled yellow leaves with green veins; and bud or fruit drop. Leaves may develop brown margins, too.

Because azaleas are shooting out new growth now, those yellowish leaves are more noticeable.

To remedy the problem, aerate the soil. Poke holes to encourage drainage. Add compost or other organic matter to help drainage as well as the soil’s acidity.

Then go ahead and feed those yellowish azaleas with chelated iron, a form of this nutrient that’s easily and quickly absorbed by plants – even in clay soils. Chelated iron is available at nurseries and home centers.

For more about iron deficiency in plants, check out these UC integrated pest management plant notes: http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/GARDEN/PLANTS/DISORDERS/irondeficiency.html.


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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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