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GardenSMART Episode

Show #10/6310. Azaleas-From Propagation To The Landscape

Summary of Show

Buddy Lee
BUDDY is a world renowned breeder who holds over 50 patents and international breeding rights. He has spent his whole life immersed in horticulture, fascinated with Azaleas and creating new cultivars. After graduating college he started a nursery on his parents' dairy farm and from there the process of hand crossing plants and evaluating tens of thousands of seedlings began. For More Information Click Here

New Cultivars
There are so MANY NEW CULTIVARS BUDDY HAS DEVELOPED. Talk about the process of developing a new plant, the selection process, if you will. Buddy grows a lot of seedlings and a lot of the seedlings he grows are from controlled pollination but some are from open pollination. He looks for certain traits in a plant and growing each seedling is different. So, start from the seed, grow the seedlings, and it's kind of an elimination process. For More Information Click Here

Number Of Seedlings Buddy Grows Every Year
Eric wonders, just out of curiosity, HOW MANY SEEDLINGS DOES BUDDY CONTINUE TO GROW every year? Well, it's gotten out of hand really. This year he probably has fewer seedlings than many years, but the last group he went through, the entire process of planting little seedlings and then moving them on up, he ended up with 13,000 just in four-inch containers. Buddy looks at them many years, probably three or four years, while they're in four-inch containers. For More Information Click Here

Next Improvements In The Encore Line
Eric knows that Buddy works tirelessly at this every single year and that he's constantly looking for THE NEXT WAY TO IMPROVE THE ENCORE LINE. Eric is curious to know what Buddy is looking for or looking at right now thinking about what Encore is going to be in the next two, three, four years? Buddy has many goals that are free floating goals as the plants move forward. He picks traits for this group or that group. One trait that he's been looking at is leaf color or leaf variegation and he's also been working on yellow blooming Azaleas. For More Information Click Here

Significant Parents
If you don't mind sharing, what were some of the SIGNIFICANT PARENTS that you started working with to develop the Encore line? Well, the most significant one initially was rhododendron oldhamii, a species from Taiwan. A friend of his, Dr. John Thornton, was a veterinarian and also a plant collector and had paid for the venture into Taiwan. The Dr. got a little Azalea cutting for his donation but since he didn't really care for Azaleas he just put the cutting in the ground and the thing grew and thrived. For More Information Click Here

Where Will Azaleas Grow
A lot of times when we think about Azaleas we think of them as a southern plant, but that's not necessarily true. THEY CAN GO PRETTY FAR NORTH. For example, Evergreen Azaleas will grow in zone five. Some of those species came out of Korea and northern Japan. They're extremely cold hardy, the Poukhanense species and Kurumes and stuff like that. For More Information Click Here

Azalea Care And Maintenance
Eric would next like to talk about CARE AND MAINTENANCE of Azaleas. We know generally they like an acidic soil, but what would Buddy recommend from a fertilizer standpoint, and then what kind of fertilizer regimen? What do they want to be fed? Initially, if you buy Encores Azaleas, in the first year, maybe not fertilize. A lot of times they have a lot of fertilizer in them. Buddy likes to get a fertilizer that's for Azaleas or for other acidic loving plants. Don't fertilize them too heavy. For More Information Click Here

Ideal Soil Conditions
When thinking about the natural habitat for an Azalea we typically think about a lot of humus in the soil. If we're going to plant an Encore Azalea at our home what kind of SOIL CONDITIONS should we be looking at, more specifically what do we need to be thinking about when planting it? Make sure that the soil is well drained. For More Information Click Here

Pruning Azaleas
Eric would like talk about pruning. It’s something that we get a lot of questions about from our viewers. Probably all of us at some point in time have made the mistake of PRUNING AZALEAS at the wrong time of the year, then we're super disappointed the next year. When should we prune? Well, on traditional Azaleas, say the spring blooming Azaleas, and it varies from location to location, usually anytime is okay after it blooms. Particularly if you want to see the blooms. For More Information Click Here

Watering
The Encore Azalea is pretty maintenance free, but are there any other things that we should be thinking about from a standpoint of pest, disease, maybe even our watering regimen. What should we be keeping in mind? WATERING IS A KEY thing, especially with new plants, not only Azaleas, but a lot of plants. Give them a chance to root into the soil. For More Information Click Here

LINKS:

Encore Azaleas
Encore Azalea | More Blooms, More Often

Buddy Lee
Meet the Man Behind the South's Iconic Encore Azalea | Southern Living

Show #10/6310. Azaleas-From Propagation To The Landscape

Transcript of Show

In this Episode GardenSMART steps into the exciting world of new plant selections to see how they go from an idea, to the field, to your nearest garden center. As avid gardeners every year, we wait expectantly for the next round of new plant introductions to find their way to our local garden center. There's so much work that goes into bringing a new selection to market. From the point of discovery, there are years of propagation, evaluation, and patience involved in getting everything just right and building enough stock to finally launch.

In this Episode GardenSMART visits one of the world's leading experts on Azaleas and Azalea breeding. There are few flowering shrubs that rival the sheer splendor of an Azalea in bloom. For generations it has defined our ideal of a garden in spring. Its bloom power is unrivaled and covers an amazing spectrum of color and form. There has been tremendous progress made in the field of Azalea breeding the past 30 years and the one plantsman at the center of this revolution is Buddy Lee.

Buddy is a world renowned breeder who holds over 50 patents and international breeding rights. He has spent his whole life immersed in horticulture and fascinated with Azaleas and creating new cultivars. After graduating college he started a nursery on his parents' dairy farm and from there the process of hand crossing plants and evaluating tens of thousands of seedlings began. Half a century of hard work has resulted in one of the most impressive lines of Azaleas that exist, Encore Azaleas. With over 33 cultivars in market and millions of plants sold each year, Encore has become a household name. The hallmark of the Encore Azalea line is that these plants bloom multiple times throughout the year, have exceptional root systems, are tough disease resistant plants, and have great growth habits. Couple that with being more cold hardy and sun tolerant and you definitely have a winner.

GardenSMART visits Buddy at his nursery in Louisiana to discuss plant selection, breeding and what makes these selections so special. Eric welcomes Buddy back to the show. Thanks so much for joining us. Buddy in turn thanks Eric. Good to be back. Good to be back.

Eric loves Azaleas, it's a wonderful garden plant. Whenever we talk about Azaleas with horticulturalists, the name Buddy Lee always comes up. Buddy is an icon in the world of Azalea breeding and Eric is super excited to spend the day with him. Buddy thanks Eric and GardenSMART, he’s glad we're here.

Eric would like to talk about Buddy's legacy in Azaleas. How did you get plugged into that plant in particular? At an early age Buddy worked part-time at a wholesale nursery production company that specialized in Azaleas and that's where it all took off. Early on he went into the nursery business, but it was so competitive. There were many Azaleas being produced back in the seventies and eighties but Buddy has always been interested in diversity of plants. So that's when he kind of just started looking for new varieties, doing plant breeding, things like that, just to expand the line. But he never realized it would go this far.

There are so MANY NEW CULTIVARS BUDDY HAS DEVELOPED. Talk about the process of developing a new plant, the selection process, if you will. Buddy grows a lot of seedlings and a lot of the seedlings he grows are from controlled pollination but some are from open pollination. He looks for certain traits in a plant and growing each seedling is different. So, start from the seed, grow the seedlings, and it's kind of an elimination process. The ones that do not do that well are eliminated and the progression just keeps going year after year. He then narrows his selection down to blooms and foliage or just good plants. With the Encores he was also looking for repeat bloom or fall bloom. He grows a lot of seedlings, probably more than he should. He might have 30 or 40 from one cross and then just slowly and meticulously propagates them and grows them in groups like is done in wholesale production to see how they pan out in production. He plants them in the ground. Once they get in the ground, they've been through several years of evaluation. It's very space consuming to have them in the ground, but he just keeps monitoring for pest resistance and for tolerance - heat tolerance, cold tolerance, all kinds of different things. It's not something he has a checklist. If they survive and continue to do well, that’s his checklist. And that process of evaluation indeed does take years. A lot of people don't realize that some of the best cultivars that are in market have been observed for well over a decade. In many cases, it just takes that long. So Encore breeding initially started probably late seventies, eighties and the first ones were released in 1995. Buddy has narrowed them down from thousands of seedlings, a lot of seedlings. Some are easy to discard because he's looking for those - unique plants, unique colors, plants that have good root systems, good garden plants homeowners will have success with. And all of that effort Buddy has put into the Encore line shows in the quality of those plants.

There are many new plants that come to market that have not been adequately evaluated. Unfortunately for us as gardeners, we figure that out inside a couple of years. You plant it and it doesn't work. Eric has never had a single bad experience with an Encore Azalea, and thinks there are millions of other Americans that can say the same. Buddy grows a lot of them. They have to grow in the ground. He then tries to select the best. Some plants are different. Different areas may perform better. You can't evaluate for every situation. But overall they're just very sturdy, hardy plants. Very vigorous, they have a lot of vigor in them.

Eric wonders, just out of curiosity, HOW MANY SEEDLINGS DOES BUDDY CONTINUE TO GROW every year? Well, it's gotten out of hand really. This year he probably has fewer seedlings than many years, but with the last group he went through, the entire process of planting little seedlings and then moving them on up, he ended up with 13,000 just in four-inch containers. Buddy looks at them many years, probably three or four years, while they're in four-inch containers. But then he starts shuffling, looking for the right bloom color or right bloom time or plants that just show a lot of resistance. He sprays no pesticides on these plants. With all those plants each one of them is unique, they're siblings actually or first cousins whatever you want to say but all of them have these traits that could potentially be tolerant to certain pests and other attributes. That's what he's looking for and why it takes time.

Not using chemicals more closely mimics what a typical landscape situation is going to be. Most people are not out there spraying their Azalea every other month or so. Buddy finds most homeowners resist spraying chemicals. But sometimes you may need to. Sometimes pests just get the upper hand but at least the plants have the ability to perform or to fight off the pest initially. It might get some infestation here or there but generally it will be easy to control.

Eric knows that Buddy works tirelessly at this every single year and that he's constantly looking for THE NEXT WAY TO IMPROVE THE ENCORE LINE. Eric is curious to know what Buddy is looking for or looking at right now thinking about what Encore is going to be in the next two, three, four years? Buddy has many goals that are free floating goals as the plants move forward. He picks traits for this group or that group. One trait that he's been looking at is leaf color or leaf variegation and he's also been working on yellow blooming Azaleas. But that may be kind of a pie in the sky deal. Like a red blooming Magnolia. But leaf color is what he's been looking for. And also in the flower, in the actual flower, he's been trying to get more stable bi-colors and tri-colors. Different colors or blotches that match up. Just a combination of colors in the flower head, in the flower bloom, just to create a new plant. Say if you get a plant that has stable variegation, the leaves are all variegated, then you'd get a bi-color flower. That would be a wild plant, but it may not pan out. And, it might just be too much for a consumer, just too much. It's difficult to do when you start selecting for all those traits. Over the years Buddy has noticed you start, you lose a lot of stuff so you've got to kind of back cross and pick up some vigor, you've just got to play with it. And, that's why he says he's been working on this new idea for years. But basically within the last few years he's gotten a lot of good plants that actually inherit a trait or those traits, so now he's just combining traits.

And a lot of people will think that Encore is just one line of plants. But there are a lot of different genetics, it's a broad spectrum of genetic background and that's why you get so many different variations of short plants, tall plants and different leaf colors. There are a lot of genetics, there are a lot of different species. One of the things he tried initially was concentrating on cold hardy plants because he wanted to expand the range of the azalea. A lot of times you can get a really cold hardy plant, but it's not very heat tolerant. But if you grow those genetics, grow those plants in that situation, plants that have both of those traits start showing up.

If you don't mind sharing, what were some of the SIGNIFICANT PARENTS that you started working with to develop the Encore line? Well, the most significant one initially was rhododendron oldhamii, a species from Taiwan. A friend of his, Dr. John Thornton, was a veterinarian and also a plant collector and had paid for the venture into Taiwan. The Dr. got a little Azalea cutting for his donation but since he didn't really care for Azaleas he just put the cutting in the ground and the thing grew and thrived. Buddy had been collecting cultivars that were already on the market that had a tendency to bloom in the fall or repeat bloom. There are numerous ones that have that tendency but when he saw Thornton's Azalea, it was probably four or five feet tall, beside his veterinarian shop, it was in July and it was in full bloom. Buddy was familiar with that plant but had never seen one that had that heavy bloom. So he immediately took some pollen. He took it even though he had already started collecting clones that had a tendency to bloom in the fall. It was an easy step from July blooming plants to plants that had a tendency to bloom later on. He started crossing immediately. At that time he believes he had forty something already named clones from all these different hybrid groups. So he just started work on the July bloomer. That year was just super crazy, everything he pollinated set seed so he had a lot of stuff to work with. You start getting, 20,000, 30,000 seedlings, it can get time-consuming. He had a nursery at that time, so plant breeding and new plants in the market just wasn't there. There were some Kessler roses that were in the market, but as far as marketing plants and horticulture plants, in our realm, it just wasn't there. But now with Encore and Knockout and the other new ones, it's a big deal. Since those brands were successful and moved out in the marketplace there's now a tidal wave. There's a lot of plant breeding now looking for those new, innovative plants.

A lot of times when we think about Azaleas we think of them as a southern plant, but that's not necessarily true. THEY CAN GO PRETTY FAR NORTH. For example, Evergreen Azaleas will grow in zone five. Some of those species came out of Korea and northern Japan. They're extremely cold hardy, the Poukhanense species and Kurumes and stuff like that. There's a lot of cold hardiness that can be found in Evergreen Azaleas. What's the ideal range for the Encore Azaleas? Buddy says they've tested them in zone six and five. But the best ones would be from zone six, the warm part of six down to nine. And that covers a lot of people. 

Eric would next like to talk about CARE AND MAINTENANCE of Azaleas. We know generally they like an acidic soil, but what would Buddy recommend from a fertilizer standpoint, and then what kind of fertilizer regimen? What do they want to be fed? Initially, if you buy Encores Azaleas, in the first year, maybe not fertilize. A lot of times they have a lot of fertilizer in them. Buddy likes to get a fertilizer that's for Azaleas or for other acidic loving plants. Don't fertilize them too heavy. And make sure that when you fertilize them they're not in a dehydrated state. The spring time is a great time to fertilize because usually the soil is moist and the temperatures are not stressful on the plant. But with their fibrous roots, you want to make sure you don't just throw a handful of fertilizer right around the base of the plant. Because their roots are shallow and fibrous that fertilizer will just burn them. It's best to just fertilize around the canopy edge, just lightly fertilize it. Eric agrees the nitrogen in fertilizer can absolutely burn the roots. And a lot of the fibrous feeder roots, the ones that are absorbing most of the nutrition are actually a bit away from the trunk of the plant. Meaning you find them more away from the plant. So lightly sprinkle just around the edge of the canopy. That is a good place to put your fertilizer and that will ensure you don't burn the plant or stress the plant out. Stay away from over fertilizing. Azaleas once they're established, tend to do well.

When thinking about the natural habitat for an Azalea we typically think about a lot of humus in the soil. If we're going to plant an Encore Azalea at our home what kind of SOIL CONDITIONS should we be looking at, more specifically what do we need to be thinking about when planting it? Make sure that the soil is well drained. They have shallow roots, they're a very fibrous root system and they grow just below the surface of the soil. Don't plant them too deep because if you sink those shallow fibrous roots into the soil you just kind of stifle them. They may overcome that over time, but you just don't want to be stressing your plants out, it can kill them. Also, if they're buried too deep, you need to make sure you don't mulch them too deeply because that kind of creates the same atmosphere. Eric likes to plant Azaleas high, leave a couple inches out of the ground and then pull the mulch up to it. Because those roots need a lot of air to succeed. Two or three inches above the grade, then just pile it up.

Eric would like talk about pruning. It’s something that we get a lot of questions about from our viewers. Probably all of us at some point in time have made the mistake of PRUNING AZALEAS at the wrong time of the year, then we're super disappointed the next year. When should we prune? Well, on traditional Azaleas, say the spring blooming Azaleas, and it varies from location to location, usually anytime is okay after it blooms. Particularly if you want to see the blooms. But don't wait too late in the year because on traditional Azaleas you'll lose all your bloom set. If you go into July and you're pruning, that could significantly decrease your bloom set. And Buddy sees that a lot. But with Encore Azaleas, if you need to prune it to maintain its shape it's best to prune as soon as you can right after the spring bloom. You want to prune then because Encore Azaleas flush into new growth and you want that growth, you don't want to lose that growth by pruning them late. You want those bloom buds to set on that new foliage. So after blooming you need to prune them so you can encourage growth and you won't delay your repeat bloom.

The Encore Azalea is pretty maintenance free, but are there any other things that we should be thinking about from a standpoint of pest, disease, maybe even our watering regimen. What should we be keeping in mind? WATERING IS A KEY thing, especially with new plants, not only Azaleas, but a lot of plants. Give them a chance to root into the soil. Here in the south, we can just get some brutal, dry and hot weather, and during that time they need a water source. But don't over water them. Because they don't like to be real wet, but conversely if they're drying out and they're wilting, you're losing some vigor, you're stressing that plant out. If you’ve got the drainage right give them a nice, kind of soaking. Soak it. Because some of the roots do go down deeper. If it's always getting a light watering then all the roots are going to stay right up where the water is and you don't get them rooted in well enough.

Buddy has so many irons in the fire. Of course he's famous for Encore azaleas but there’s so much more to Buddy Lee than Encore azaleas. Every time Eric bumps into other plantsmen and they’re talking about Buddy Lee they’re like “didn’t you know that Buddy is into or Buddy also has a …" Eric would like for Buddy to talk about other irons he has in the fire, about the breadth of his program. Buddy started out with Azaleas, but there are many other plants also that he's been working on. He's done a lot of work with Gardenias as well as hollies and distylium. But there's no real plant that he doesn't like working with. There are very few.

Getting to spend a day with the men and women who create the cultivars that we treasure in our gardens is always a rare treat, and today was no exception. Buddy’s decades and decades of devotion to great plants is impressive. Eric tells Buddy that it's so much fun to spend time with him. Every time he hangs out with Buddy he learns something new, it’s always fascinating. Eric hopes that Buddy is proud of all the work he's done. Eric knows that he's proud of Buddy. Buddy thanks Eric very much. He is proud of his body of work but is always striving for something new. He loves that aspect.

LINKS:

Encore Azaleas
Encore Azalea | More Blooms, More Often

Buddy Lee
Meet the Man Behind the South's Iconic Encore Azalea | Southern Living


   
 
FEATURED ARTICLE
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By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photographs courtesy of Suntory Flowers

Holidays bring beautiful plants and inspiration we need to make spirits bright. One trend is a looser, more spread-out floral display down the center of the table. To learn more click here for an interesting and informative article.


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