Azaleas typically bloom early in the growing season, lavishing landscapes with copious mounds of white, pink, salmon, and lavender flowers. They thrive near and even beneath shade trees, unlike most flowering shrubs. These plants do best in well-drained acidic soil, with a pH between 4.5-6.0. Although most home gardeners simply purchase young nursery grown specimens, there’s no reason you can’t very easily and inexpensively grow azaleas from seeds. Just be patient, take your time and you’ll be richly rewarded with beautiful plants that may bloom as soon as 3 to 4 years from germination. Seedlings sprouted during the winter can be planted outside the following spring.
Prepare to Germinate
Cut off the top half of an empty plastic gallon milk or juice jug with scissors to make your own re-purposed seed starting container. Wash it well with hot soapy water and dry it. Make about 4-5 2-inch slits in the bottom to provide for drainage. Write the date and plant variety on the container with a permanent marker.
Combine equal parts peat moss, well-washed sand and Perlite to create your potting medium. Don’t use sand directly from the outdoors--rather, purchase some that has been packaged strictly for potting purposes. Read the label carefully to make sure it contains no limestone, which serves to sweeten soil. Azaleas despise sweet or salty soil.
Fill the plastic seed starting container about half full of potting medium. Moisten the mixture evenly with distilled water until it runs out the bottom slits. Let it drain very well so that it’s not soaked or wet. Fungus and disease will threaten soggy seedlings.
Finely mill a handful of sphagnum moss by rubbing it vigorously against the screen of your kitchen strainer. Spread about 1/8 inch of the milled sphagnum over the surface of your potting medium. Thoroughly moisten it by misting with distilled water from a plastic spray bottle.
Spread the azalea seeds over the milled sphagnum, giving them as much space as possible so that they’re not too close to each other. Mist them with a little dilute azalea fertilizer, which is the only feeding they’ll need for several months.
Seal the starting container in a clear plastic bag, which will provide the necessary level of humidity. Set it about 12 inches beneath an inexpensive shop light fixture fitted with 1-2 40-watt fluorescent bulbs. If such a set-up is not possible, even a portable desk lamp can be sufficient. Just position it about 4 inches above the starting container. Leave the lights on 18 to 24 hours daily because long days facilitate vegetative growth. Your seedlings will germinate in 2 to 3 weeks.
Care for Your Seedlings
Inspect the surface of the medium every 4 to 5 days until the seedlings germinate. There’s no need to water them since the sealed plastic bag retains moisture and humidity. Open the bag about 1/3 of the way to begin acclimating the seedlings to lower humidity levels when they develop at least 2 sets of true leaves. Keep them evenly moist but not soggy.
Transplant the seedlings into a plastic 6-cell starting flat, using the same medium that you planted the seeds in. Evenly moisten the medium. Partially seal the flat in the plastic bag about half open, and set it back under the lights. The seedlings will be small and seem to be growing slowly, which is normal. They’ll begin to grow faster once they get 4 to 5 sets of leaves. After a couple weeks, completely remove their plastic bags, but keep them under lights.
Begin acclimating your azalea seedlings to the outdoors after all danger of frost has passed, and they have developed 5 to 6 sets of leaves. Set them in a shady spot every morning for a week, and bring them in around noontime and set them back under lights. Let them stay out all day during the following week, but bring them in at dusk. You can now turn the lights off.
Transplant seedlings in their permanent homes. Choose shaded to partially shaded well-draining locations. Keep them uniformly moist but not wet, and feed liquid fertilizer per the packaging instructions.