In the Garden with Miriam Jabour|Azalea wonderland: Plants bring color to the the Piggs’ place

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 28, 2009

The profusion of color that occurs when the azaleas are in full bloom is enchanting.

Their colors range from white and light pink to bright scarlet and purple of varying intensities and hues. The beauty of these plants during their brief bloom cycle was enough to motivate Roy and Bonnie Pigg to plant almost 400 azaleas in their woodland garden off Fisher Ferry Road.

It is quite different from their previous residence in Lake Park. There, they grew many day lilies. The deer have destroyed many of the ones they brought with them when they moved to this location five years ago, but there are still a few scattered throughout the property. The Piggs changed direction and found azaleas to be well-suited to their informal garden style and not as appealing to four-legged visitors. Only one variety, called Conversation Piece — a Robin Hill hybrid with white, pink and a combination of the two colors blooming on the same plant — has been bothered by the deer. Others — such as Fisher Pink, Mildred, Sunglow, George L. Tabor, Mrs. G.G. Gerbing, Pride of Mobile, President Clay, Red Ruffle, Pink Chiffon, Glory and Watchet — have not been disturbed.

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The Piggs added 15 varieties of the re-blooming Encore azaleas to their garden this past year. The Encore series was developed in the late 1990s by a Louisiana nurseryman, Robert Edward Lee, and has changed the landscape industry’s use of this flowering shrub. The 23 varieties currently available bloom well in spring, just as the traditional varieties do. They put on new growth after the spring bloom cycle and produce an encore bloom in midsummer and into fall. They take more sun, and some have flowers that are single, while others are ruffled or semi-double. The Piggs have incorporated them in the flower bed across the front of their house with cryptomeria, crepe myrtles and dwarf yaupon hollies.

Pigg prefers to plant azaleas during the fall, usually in November, but often finds them difficult to find locally at that time of year. Nurseries generally have them in stock each spring so that buyers can see what they look like in bloom. He digs a wide hole for each plant and mixes one part topsoil and one part composted cow manure with one part of the native soil to fill in around each plant. Azaleas should be planted high or very shallow because drainage is an important issue in their culture. Planted too deep in the soil and the result is almost a certain death from root rot. Sand can be added to improve drainage. Pigg says the bagged topsoil he uses often contains a noticeable amount of sand. Azaleas are acid-loving plants and need a pH of 4.0 to 6.0. A soil test is generally recommended before planting, particularly around new construction or if the azaleas will be used as foundation plants.

After his azaleas bloom, Pigg said he mixes sulfur with iron and puts a handful or so around each azalea plant. This increases the acidity of the soil as do the decaying oak leaves that he shreds and uses as mulch around them. Azaleas do not need too much fertilizer, says Pigg. Fertilizers for acid-loving plants are available, and the slow-release type is best, according to the MSU Extension Service publication, “Growing Azaleas.” Careful examination before any azalea purchase is important, says Pigg. Sometimes they become root-bound in the nursery pots, and it is better to buy a smaller, healthy plant than one that is root-bound.

Azaleas are the stars at this time of year, but they are not the only plants in the Piggs’ 2 1/2-acre woodland garden.  Narcissus are planted here and there throughout the property, and many are in bloom. Camellia sasanquas, variegated pittosporums, trellises with clematis and Lady Banks roses, ferns, Anthony Waterer spirea, loropetalum, coneflowers, rudbeckias, crepe myrtles and ornamental grasses are planted in curving beds and around the house and workshop.  Bonnie Pigg enjoys planting pots of hydrangea, impatiens, pansies and snapdragons for the patio as well as the annuals, perennials and roses that bloom later in the season.

“Our neighbors think I’m crazy, working in the yard all the time”  Roy Pigg said. “But I don’t fish or hunt, and this is something I really enjoy doing.”

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and master flower show judge, has been active with the Vicksburg Council of Garden Clubs for more than 20 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.