Thursday, 30 October 2014

Cultivating Camellias

Camellias are very rewarding plants to grow. Being evergreen they can provide either structure in the garden itself or an excellent boundary, providing privacy from neighbours or deflecting winds in exposed areas. The dark green leaves of most Camellias make the perfect backdrop for other plants in the garden, and as most Camellias flower in spring they extend the season of interest.
Worth every care and effort... C. 'Rainbow' (autumn)

To get the best from your Camellias you must first understand a few basic rules of thumb. All Camellias need neutral to acid soil (pH of 7 or below), none will tolerate lime. Most Camellias prefer shade, although in areas with cool damp summers (such as Cornwall, west Devon, the south of Wales) they will grow happily in full sun. No Camellias like extremes of wet or dry soils; a light, humus rich, moisture retentive soil is perfect. Most Camellias in cultivation are reliably hardy in most of the UK, but their roots aren't as hardy as their tops, so bear this in mind if you want to grow them in pots (make sure the pots can't freeze). In pots Camellias can be grown in ericaceous compost, preferably something heavy like an ericaceous 'John Innes' mix; don't over-pot them when they're small, and bear in mind that one day they will probably outgrow the pots you have chosen for them, at which point they will need planting out. You can feed potted Camellias with an ericaceous feed, but in the ground an annual mulch of good compost (not mushroom compost which contains lime!) or well rotted manure would be better. A mulch will help to conserve moisture as well as improving the all important soil structure.

Camellia flower buds tend to be produced in July/August, and then they swell up for winter before opening in spring. While the plant is producing buds it is particularly sensitive to drought, so make sure your plant doesn't get too dry at this crucial point in the year, especially in pots. The reputation that Camellias aren't completely hardy comes from the fact that their flowers can be damaged after frosts. To avoid damage to flowers make sure your Camellia is shaded from direct morning sunshine during the winter, where the rapid warming of frozen buds by the sun causes damage. Allow your Camellia's flower buds to defrost slowly and they are usually OK. Hard frosts will often damage open flowers, but this is the price we all pay when we grow early flowering plants. 'Camellia flower blight' is a fungal problem that causes blotching on the flowers- rake up dropped flowers and pick damaged flowers off the plant and you should be able to keep this problem at bay. To avoid spreading fungal spores you must not compost Camellia flowers.
Just beautiful! Camellia 'Desire' (spring)
Camellias can be pruned after flowering. Usually removing unwanted shoots or pinching back the tips of shoots to encourage bushiness will be sufficient, but occasionally more severe pruning may be needed. If you need to severely prune your Camellia then I would personally recommend doing so after frosts have passed; this will probably interfere with the flowering for that spring, but it would at least allow the plant plenty of time to break from old wood, grow shoots and then allow those new shoots to ripen before winter.

Camellias are extraordinarily diverse in terms of colour, flower type and season. Broadly speaking most varieties fall into one of three main groups.

Camellia japonica
The C. japonica varieties are by far the most diverse, ranging from varieties with single flowers right through to very complex doubles, and with colours from white through to dark red. Most varieties I'm aware of have fairly large leaves, and all C. japonica varieties (to my knowledge) flower in spring.

Camellia x williamsii
This group are all derived from crossing Camellia saluensis and C. japonica. Typically C. x williamsii varieties produce prolific clusters of flowers, and often flower from a young age. Most C. x williamsii varieties seem to be pink, although a couple are white and one ('Jury's Yellow') is a creamy yellow colour. Some people prefer C. x williamsii cultivars because they drop their spent flowers, but to be honest I've never really noticed C. japonica holding onto its spent flowers for any length of time. There is a lot greater diversity of flower types and colours in C. japonica. With only one exception to my knowledge ('November Pink') all C. x williamsii varieties flower in spring.

Camellia sasanqua
Although Camellias are often thought of as exclusively spring flowering plants, autumn flowering varieties are becoming increasingly popular. By far the best known of the autumn flowering Camellias must be the varieties of C. sasanqua. Many of these varieties are richly scented, and the scent will carry well in a warm and sheltered garden. C. sasanqua varieties are believed to need a warm and sunny spot in the garden for the stems to ripen and flower; this might be true, but they might need that warm and sheltered spot so that they can have a longer growing season to set flower buds. As a general rule the autumn flowering Camellias are a lot more sensitive to feed than spring flowering varieties.

There are thousands upon thousands of varieties of Camellia known in cultivation, but you can view some of the varieties that have caught my attention here on my Pinterest board.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Decisions made

I've not traditionally been a fan of 'taking the plunge', but sometimes life takes an unexpected turn and new options appear for the first time; they do say that when one door closes another opens....

This is my situation at the moment; one door has closed, I am at a crossroads, 'times they are a-changing'. The day I was told that I was to be made redundant by my employer I felt as though my world had been taken from me, but as time has moved on I have come to see this new part of my life as a great opportunity. I've worked for my soon to be former employer for 10 years, and through that time I have faced and overcome great challenges and built up my reputation for competence and knowledge. My 'online persona', Ben's Botanics, has allowed me to indulge my passion for horticulture and plantsmanship outside the confines set by my employer and develop my skills further than simply working for a nursery would allow.
Rare and interesting plants like Brillantaisia subulugurica are still my first love
My future still very much lies in horticulture; instead of simply working for someone else again I am heading out on my own, converting my redundancy payment into machinery and tools, and becoming a self-employed gardener and consultant.

Sometimes the future is dark and scary, sometimes bright and exciting. Those around me have great faith in my abilities and I am determined not to let anyone down, not least myself. On the 7th of November I will leave my employer's nursery for the very last time and will, I hope, embark on the adventure of a lifetime.