Tuesday, June 10, 2008
The family tree of camellias
I come from a gardening family. Among my kin it is not so much a matter of whether you garden, as what you garden. Some relatives share my inherited passion for irises, others have a predilection for fuchsias or orchids, and one branch of the family were great camellia growers.
I say ‘were’ as my Auntie June died recently, and at Queen’s Birthday weekend we gathered to remember her, literally in the shade of a huge camellia bush growing in her daughter’s garden.
Camellias are very rewarding plants to grow. They are tidy evergreens, generally looking attractive year round with bright, glossy green foliage. They are not too demanding as to growing conditions either, as long as a few fundamentals are taken care of.
Soil conditions are simple- slightly acidic soil, free draining is perfect, but less than perfect is not going to worry these plants too much. Camellias do not like growing in waterlogged soils, and they really dislike very alkaline soil, but they will do on most other soils. They will cope with reasonably heavy soils as long as a good degree of humus is added – make sure not to use mushroom compost though, as that is very alkaline.
Sun or shade is not crucial either – camellias are very adaptable as far as light requirements go and they will cope with either. Obviously plants in the full sun will need more protection from wind and sun, with a deep mulch of peat or bark going a long way to helping.
I find our varieties that are growing in the shade flower a little later than those in the sun, and also tend to grow a little looser. I have not seen it in my own garden, but I do know that some plants growing in the shade develop problems with scales and sooty mould, and in extreme cases, thrips.
Camellias can safely be planted at this time of the year as long as one or two little tips are followed.
Work some organic matter into your soil before planting. The bigger the area you can do this for the better, as the plant will make quite a sizable ball of fibrous roots. If you are planting in very heavy soils such as clay, make sure you do not create a large basin in the soil, trapping water in what is in effect a big bucket. Make sure there is a way for any water that potentially could collect in such a depression, to drain away.
Once the soil conditioning has been carried out, dig a hole about twice the size of the container, and sit the container in the base of the hole. The bag can gently be removed, and the soils carefully built up around the root ball. Make sure the top of the root ball is level with the soil, as it will act as a wick and draw moisture out of the soil if it sits higher.
Many varieties have a willowy growth and benefit from being staked as this will stop the new growth from tipping over. New plants like this tend to look a little leggy, and it is tempting to prune out the new growth but this is a mistake. Leave the growth as it will help fill the plant out as it grows, and will give a more mature looking specimen more quickly. This is obviously not the case if you are trying to shape an espalier or other tailored form.
Do not be tempted to feed the shrub as you plant it – this is best left until the spring and summer when it is actively growing. I think it is best to use a slow-release product such as Osmocote, especially on young plants. Use a long-lasting type designed for trees and shrubs, and you will be able to feed annually. For larger tress you could use one of the proprietary mixes designed for azaleas, rhododendrons and Camellias, or the same slow-release types. Natural manures will be fine, but remember to use them sparingly, especially chicken manure. A little and often is probably the best message.
Camellias need little pruning other than for shape. The best time to prune is in winter, as the next season’s flowers are produced on spring growth, and a spring or summer pruning will remove many of the flowers.
I will be looking out for a new Camellia for our garden this season. It will have to be bright and cheery – and it will have to flower in June.