Saturday, 23 February 2013

Patience is a tool: growing Camellias commercially

Camellia 'Mark Alan'- great plant, but not common

No evergreen shrubs can even try to match the Camellias for flower. After the dreary grey winter Camellias erupt in a spectacular display of colours ranging from crisp whites through every shade of pink and to deep reds, with flowers from single forms through to intricate doubles, and from tiny to saucer sized. The plants themselves range in size from small varieties that seldom grow to more than 1m (3ft) to enormous shrubs that make great screens or informal hedges.

The two main groups found in gardens are the C. japonica and C. x williamsii varieties. Camellia japonica is found in China, South Korea and Japan, and has given gardeners an extraordinarily diverse range of blooms. Camellia x williamsii is a hybrid between wild Camellia japonica and C. saluensis. The C. x williamsii hybrids are often preferred by gardeners because they are more floriferous and generally of a more upright habit, as well as tending to shed their spent blooms more readily.

It is easy to fall for this captivating genus, and many people do. The best place to see lots of Camellias is Devon and Cornwall, and blooms are shown at local shows during the flowering season in the same way that Dahlias and Chrysanthemums are shown later in the year. The frustration for people wanting to collect Camellias is their relative scarcity in nurseries and garden centres. Visit a garden centre in spring and you will almost certainly find Camellias, but usually the same few varieties again and again...

Camellias are not easy to raise and as such are not favoured in the fast turnaround, low input world of the wholesale nurseries. To illustrate this I would like to take you through the propagation of Camellia varieties.
Camellia cuttings being weaned... slowly!
 In late summer semi-ripe cuttings are taken. These are put onto a mist propagator with bottom heat, and will often stay here for six months until they have enough root to be weaned off the propagating bench. Usually after a period of one to three months the cuttings can then be potted into 9cm pots and further hardened off. So far we're seven to nine months in...

Once the plants have started into growth they will be pinched back to make them bushy. They will continue to grow and develop as they root into their 9cm pot. More vigorous varieties will be ready to pot about 12-14 months after the cuttings were taken, less vigorous varieties (usually the more sought after) can be ready to pot 18 months or more after the cutting was taken.
These Camellias are the same age, but of differing vigour.

A slightly older batch, almost ready for potting.
Some can't wait to get flowering, like these young plants of C. 'Fiona Colville'!
Years on, here's a 2L C. 'Glenn's Orbit' ready for sale
When it comes to potting the 9cm plants there are two main options: pot your 9cm plant into a 2L pot, or go from a 9cm pot into a 1L pot, and then pot that 1L pot into a 3L pot. Either way you are looking at a further investment in time. If you pot a 9cm pot into a 2L pot in spring of one year you will have plants ready for spring of the following year, whereas going from a 9cm to a 1L pot and then to a 3L pot will take a little longer. All in all you are looking at a turnaround of anywhere from two to four years to have a plant ready for sale, possibly longer if you want a bigger and bushier plant for sale. Camellias will need their tips pinched to encourage them to become bushy, careful watering and feeding and lots of TLC to make good plants. Compare them with, say a Hydrangea: take your cuttings in summer of year one, pot for sale in the spring of year two, sell in the summer of year two!

Camellias are expensive to produce, and sadly this makes Camellias undesirable to most nurseries; they are slow, need lots of attention, and can suffer if their roots get frosted in winter, all when better returns can be made from easier crops. Some varieties are slightly more reliable to grow and they make good eye-catching garden centre plants, and these will always be the easiest to get hold of. Sorry to say that the really spectacular Camellias will remain the preserve of the specialist nursery, and will never be cheap plants to get hold of. 

But if you want to think of really long term projects try breeding Camellias! From making the cross between two plants you can have flowering sized seedlings in 2-3 years... then once you have selected a plant that you want to name and release (possibly after a few seasons of trialling the variety) you must build up enough cutting material to make enough young plants (looking at around 10-15 more years). Varieties raised from sports take a little less time, although the variety must be trialled for long enough to make sure the sport is stable and doesn't revert to the original plant; either way you are looking at an extraordinary amount of time before you get to see the fruits of your labours! We will forever be indebted to the patient Camellia breeder.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Happy Birthday to a great man of horticulture

Tonight there is a party in Cornwall, a party for a great guy!

Many of us have come across the horticultural charity Perennial and are aware of the great work that they do (if you don't know, please click here); a lot of their work is funded through special events. Anyone who has been to an event in Cornwall raising money for Perennial will almost have certainly met George Kestell....

George's work for Perennial is fantastic- he will happily tell anyone about the work of this valuable charity and raise it's profile among horticulturists and the public alike, and he works tirelessly to raise as much money as possible.

George is very well known on the Cornish horticultural scene, and is popular on the local BBC radio gardening programme. He also lectures at Duchy College in Cornwall, as well as giving lively talks to garden clubs; his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, and hopefully some of that enthusiasm will rub off onto others.

It's George's birthday (but I'd better not say which one), and I would like to take this opportunity to wish this great man many happy returns!

(left: George evangelising about Perennial's excellent work)