RAISING NATIVE AZALEAS FROM SEED - Planting By the Signs: Mountain Gardening - Foxfire Students

Planting By the Signs: Mountain Gardening: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students (2011)


~Coyl Justice~

“About publishin’ [my] secret, I don’t mind because at eighty-four, it don’t make a lot of difference. None of my family is gonna do it anyway.”

In their nursery tucked into a hillside of the Betty’s Creek community in Dillard, Georgia, Coyl Justice and his wife, Mildred, demonstrated for me the steps of gathering and then planting the seeds of the native azalea bushes that provide beautiful color in the mountains each spring. As he described to me each step of the process of growing these azaleas from seed, Mr. Justice told me not only what he does in his nursery but also how a layperson could copy what he does, using materials frequently found in the average home. As we walked their property, I witnessed the thrift and ingenuity that have undoubtedly been contributing factors in the success of their nursery. No container seemed to be wasted; even old medicine bottles were recycled and put to good use. Long before “green” was anything other than a color, Mr. and Mrs. Justice, and so many other people of the southern Appalachian Mountains like them, were making do with what they had, saving anything that could be reused, and wasting little, simply because doing so just made good sense.

During my time with them, I found Mr. and Mrs. Justice to be patient with the many questions of a novice gardener and generous with their hard-earned knowledge. Their passion for their work was clear as they enthusiastically showed me all their many plants and gave advice for some of my own gardening dilemmas.

The Justices maintain several greenhouses in which they grow various types of plants that they will later sell in their nursery. Through hard work, study, patience, and determination, they have created a business that they enjoy. The fruits of their labors have beautified homes in the surrounding area for many years, ensuring that long after they’ve retired, their legacy will continue.



ILLUSTRATION 30 Coyl Justice holding an immature seedpod with evidence of bug infestation

After the native azaleas have bloomed out in late spring, a seedpod will form where the blossoms were. Allow the pod to remain on the plant until it begins to brown, usually in late September. Mr. Justice explained to us that if the pod remained on the plant for too long, it would burst when picked, spilling the seeds onto the ground.

Place the seedpods in a container—the Justices use an open cup for this step—sprinkle with insecticide, and then place the cup in a sunny windowsill, where the seedpods will dry for approximately two months. Mr. Justice describes his initial experiences with trying to sprout azalea seeds before he added the use of an insecticide to this step: “They wouldn’t [sprout] because if you don’t put some sort of insecticide on the seedpod, the weevils gets in it, and by the time you get ’em hulled out, they done got it eat up. They don’t look like it ’cause you can’t see where the weevils has eat ’em, but if you put Sevin on ’em—I use Sevin dust and just shake it up, you know, and let ’em dry. Then hull ’em out, and then they’ll come out [germinate].”

In November, hull the seedpods by pinching the brown pod with a pair of pliers, then rolling the pod between your fingers over a container such as a plate or pie pan until the seeds fall out.

ILLUSTRATION 31 Mr. Justice holding azalea seeds and chaff

After shelling the seeds, rub them over a fine screen to separate the seeds from the chaff. The seeds will fall through the screen while the chaff remains on top. Then place the seeds in a container and store them in the freezer until you are ready to plant. “I gather the seed and freeze it. I have planted [them after I] had them five years in the freezer, and they still come up. If you gather the seed like this year, they’ll come up this year, but one year is all they’ll [usually] come up.” Mr. Justice told us that he always plants during the December after he’s gathered the seeds, though he believes that the seeds will germinate in the correct conditions up to a year later when stored in the freezer.


During the month of December, prepare the seed trays for planting. Mr. Justice told us that while he uses nursery seed boxes for his planting today, in the past, with great success, he has used plastic shoe boxes into which he had drilled drainage holes. To prepare for planting the seeds, screen peat through a wire screen. Place the peat remaining on top of the screen into the planting box first. Then mix part of the screened peat with warm water until it is wet. Squeeze the wet peat almost dry and place a 1- or 2-inch layer on top of the material already in the seed box. Then sprinkle the seeds on top. Finally, sprinkle a very small amount of the dry, screened peat—Mr. Justice said, “Pour barely enough to cover the seed; maybe not even one-sixteenth of an inch on top of the seeds and pat down gently.” Mist the planted seeds with warm water—preferably the same warm water used to moisten the peat—and cover with plastic sheeting to keep the seedbed from drying out. Mr. Justice places his seedbed on a heating cable that maintains a temperature of approximately seventy degrees Fahrenheit at this point in the process to keep the azalea seeds warm enough to germinate. However, he said that before he had a heating cable, he would place the seedbed in a sunny windowsill in his home. Keep the seedbed slightly moist with occasional mistings but not overly damp—allowing the environment to be too damp will be counterproductive—as Mr. Justice says, “Too much dampness will kill them. Some of ’em will sprout a little bit later, but most of them will sprout in about four weeks.”

After the seeds have sprouted, place them under a grow light or in a location that is warm and sunny. A window with eastern or western exposure should provide good light, though Mr. Justice says that one with eastern exposure is ideal. When the seedlings have sprouted, continue to maintain a slightly damp but not overly wet environment. When the seedlings have a pair of leaves, Mr. Justice makes a very weak solution of fertilizer with which he mists the seedlings approximately once per week. He says, “Keep the cover on ’em and mist about one time per week with a very weak solution. I only put about one-fourth teaspoon of Miracle-Gro per spray bottle.”


When the seedlings are approximately 1½ to 2 inches tall, place into individual 2-inch seed cups. Patience is key, as Mr. Justice warned us that it takes a while for the seedlings to grow to this point. Mr. Justice uses 2-inch breakaway plastic seed cups, though he says that any cup that holds approximately the same amount of soil mixture and has drainage holes will do. A container that is too small will allow the soil to dry too quickly, jeopardizing the health of the plant. In years gone by, Mrs. Justice and three other ladies would perform the task of moving the seedlings from seed tray to cups by using a toothpick to lift the seedlings from the seed trays without harming their roots. The seed cups should be filled with a mixture of perlite and peat that has been soaked in warm water and then wrung almost dry. Once the seedlings are in the cups, keep them inside in a sunny windowsill or protected outside in a cold frame or a greenhouse. Mr. Justice told us that he had grown “hundreds of ’em in a windowsill” until he obtained a cold frame. Keep the soil “moist but not too wet.”

ILLUSTRATION 32 Seedlings in seed cups

ILLUSTRATION 33 “I been takin’ [azalea seedlings] out as they grow and puttin’ them in individual cups. I leave them over winter, and then next year, I put ’em in gallons [to sell]. At three years, they’ll bloom for seeds.” At three years old, Coyl’s plants are typically knee-high.


Allow the seedlings to grow in the seed cups through the rest of the year until early the next spring, almost a year in total, at which point they will be large enough to move to gallon pots. When Mr. Justice transplants his azalea seedlings to gallon pots, he plants them in “pure pine bark” that he mixes with slow-release fertilizer. If not using slow-release fertilizer, he recommends watering with Miracle-Gro regularly.

After moving the azaleas into the gallon pots in early spring, clip them back to encourage branching out; otherwise, they will grow straight up. Move the plants outside, but keep them protected. Mr. Justice told us that if they are planted outside while still too young, “the rabbits and deer will eat them.” The plants will be ready to transplant into the ground when they are approximately 12 inches tall.