Editor's note: Alison Fleck writes a gardening column for Benicia Patch. For more gardening tips, check out the Piedmont Patch blogs by Terry Smith and Bill Drum and watch for a new Piedmont Patch ornamental gardening blog debuting next week.
Q: I really like camellias. Is there some trick to growing them? I never know when to trim them and how much water to give to them. What are the tricks?
A: Good timing! Many of my favorite camellias are in bloom and readily available right now. They are among the earliest to bloom and given only a little effort can become major players in a garden.
Generally speaking, camellias come from southern and eastern Asia. They thrive in forests and all will do well in shade. There are 12 species listed in the New Western Sunset Garden Book. Of those 12 species, two species are used with regularity. Each of these species has a number of varieties.
Camellia japonica is by far the most popular species. The first flower pictures I included are Camellia japonica. The majority of the japonicas have a lovely double flower with great depth and beauty. There are notable exceptions to that rule, of course.
Camellia sasanqua is also used quite a bit. Though the flowers are usually smaller, they have a greater tolerance for heat, direct sunlight and offer different growth habits. They are often used as espaliers or ground covers.
For those of you in the deer zone, understand that although deer don’t prefer to eat the foliage of a camellia, they love the flowers. You will do best to have your camellias away from the cloven-hoofed creatures, or at least behind a tall and sturdy fence.
Camellias will typically reach six to 12 feet tall and wide “in a garden setting,” which means in the first 10 to 15 years. I have maintained specimens that were 20 feet tall that had been growing for 30 or 40 years.
There are a few tips to keep in mind when growing camellias:
- They demand a well-drained soil. This is a plant that you need to have plenty of organic material (like compost) mixed into the native soil, and please avoid a low area where winter rains (when we have them) will not collect.
- Top dress the planting bed with compost or leaf mulch annually, keep the top dressing deep and plentiful. Don’t use a blower to clean the area under the plants.
- Camellias are sensitive to salt build-up. Don’t use steer manure and please flush the area a couple of times in the summer. Deep watering once a month in the summer is usually a good idea anyway.
- Camellia japonicas need to be protected from the hottest sun of the day, they will sunburn. If your area is too bright for a C. japonica, try a C. sasanqua.
- If you have bud drop or the flowers fall off prematurely, remove the infected flowers and change the mulch. You may need to be vigilant, changing mulch a couple of times, but in a couple of bloom cycles, you can have the same long bloom that you expected in the past.
- Camellias can be underplanted with azaleas and some shade-loving plants, but as the camellias mature, their roots get a little greedy for space. Allow for that in the long-range plan.
- All camellias are best controlled by trimming after bloom, as they begin their spring growth. This is the best time to fertilize, too.
- If the plant has yellow leaves with green veins, it might not be getting enough iron. You can treat this with iron, but be sure that you have enough organic material in and on the soil (highly clay soils can bind the nutrients are not usable by the plant).
- Camellias survive on little summer water after the first few years. For the best overall health and performance, they do best with medium water in summer. Allow the soil to dry out on the first 3 to 5 inches of soil between watering.
I grew up with camellias. When I was 4 or 5, Gramps and I bought and planted a row of camellias in the entry area of my house. By the time I was 7, my friend Sara and I could sit under them and play fairies. In the spring, we would use the petals, pretending that they were the magic potion needed at the moment. In the summer we would sip our root beer floats behind the bushes.
These plants got plenty of play time and held up well to our treatment. I am pretty sure that it was because the location was shady with reflected light, cool (for the neighborhood), out of the wind and the soil was well amended at planting. They did not get a lot of fussing, just good ol’ garden treatment.
Right now I have a camellia that a client wanted to remove. We stuck it in a pot and kept it watered (no small task in Casa Fleck). The plant is flowering and happy as a clam. So have at it!
Most of the pictures I included today came from Orchard Nursery in Lafayette. We have two locals working there, so stop in and say hi to Libby and Becky.
Alison W. Fleck is the owner of Simply Perfect Gardens, a Benicia-based landscape design company.