Growing and caring for Camellias
Best planted in the late fall through the early spring, camellias may be set out any month of the year if properly cared for. Adequate moisture is a necessity until the roots become well established in the soil. The newly developed roots will then provide enough moisture for the plant to start growth when spring arrives. Allow a minimum of five feet between plants and preferably more when planting unless planting a hedge when a distance of three feet between plants is recommended. The following steps should be followed when planting a camellia:
- Dig a hole at least two feet wider than the root ball, leaving soil in the center of the hole undisturbed to prevent settling.
- Place ball on column of soil, the top of ball should be slightly above soil level. When planting a container-grown plant, wash away the soil from the root ball with a hose and rough up the root ball if tight to allow better penetration into the soil.
- Fill the hole around the root ball with a mixture of topsoil and organic matter, and then build a berm of soil around the plant three feet in diameter to prevent water from running off.
- Mulch with straw or other organic matter around the plant.
- Water well after planting and soak once a week during dry weather.
Camellias will grow in most well-drained slightly acid soil. A soil pH (degree of acidity or alkalinity) of 6.0 - 6.5 is best for camellias. However, they will tolerate a lower pH. Two to four inches of leaf mold, ground aged bark, sawdust or cow manure worked into the soil improves both the drainage and fertility of the soil.
Camellias prefer a moist, but not soggy, soil. When watering, the soil should be wet to a depth of 14 to 18 inches. Mulching the surface of the soil around the camellias can help keep the soil cooler and hold moisture. In addition, mulch can help eliminate weeds.
Fertilize camellias in early spring. Despite their slow growth patterns, camellias are heavy feeders. Although many well established camellias perform wonderfully without being fertilized, they will do even better with a regular fertilization program. If your plants are well established, and you are not concerned about more growth, choose a fertilizer that has a low nitrogen content, for example, a 4-8-8 fertilizer with minor elements included. If your camellias are younger and you want them to concentrate their energies on growing for a few years, try a fertilizer that has a nitrogen content such as 12-4-8 or 10-10-10.
Pests and Disease
Scale insects, "crawler" stage, will move from last season's old leaves up to new succulent growth. Ants will also move aphids to the newest growing points. Plants should be spaced to allow air to circulate between them and pruned to allow air to circulate through them. This will aid in the reduction of insect populations. Applications of horticultural oil sprays work through suffocation and are effective only if sprayed directly onto the insect. Broad-spectrum insecticide treatments for other pests frequently cause mite outbreaks, so avoid these when possible. Spring applications will greatly increase mortality of scale crawlers. A heavy stream of water may be used to wash aphids off of young camellia foliage. In dry locations, spider mites may become a problem. Adequate irrigation is important because water-stressed plants are most likely to be damaged. Sprays of water, insecticidal oils, or soaps can be used for management.
Pruning and Maintenance
Major pruning should best be completed over winter or by early spring. While spring and summer growth develops, minor pruning can be accomplished by breaking off soft new growth. Pruning of camellias is done primarily to improve the overall health of the plant. Removing dead and dying limbs will minimize the possibility of diseases such as “dieback” and will also allow the plant to re-concentrate its energies. Severely pruning scale infested camellias will reduce insect problems. Severe pruning of camellias is generally thought to involve the removal of one third to one half of the existing plant.
Fall and winter is an excellent time to replenish your existing mulch in the camellia garden. A 2 to 4 inch layer of most organic mulches would be considered appropriate.
For more information on camellias, see the website for the American Camellia Society at www.camellias-acs.com.