Most kitchen pantry’s have a supply of key staple ingredients, such as flour, sugar, vinegar, oil, eggs, and the like. In the garden it’s the same; trees, shrubs and evergreens make up the must-haves and provide the essential framework.
Evergreen shrubs help create the framework and are part of the bones required to define an outdoor space. Shrubs are used to hide walls, soften hard edges, provide all-year-round appeal, reduce noise, enhance living areas and create focal points. They also benefit the wider living community and provide homes and nesting areas for birds and other animals, too.
A key shrub worthy of celebrating is the camellia. Highly regarded as one of the world’s favourite families of shrubs, these showy divas provide cloaks of flowers and take centre stage during the cooler months, and then they are quite happy to sit in the background providing lush green foliage while other plants take the lead.
Camellias have their first foray of flowers in autumn, ushered in by the sasanqua varieties. These bloom as soon as the days shorten and the soils cool throughout autumn and into winter. Then, in spring, the most common species bloom, so with a bit of planning and clever planting you can have camellias in flower for over half the year.
Few other plant groups can match the reliability and durability of camellias. Whilst they tolerate harsh cold climates and hot summers, their preference is for cooler soils and protection from the intense midday sun. Hard late frosts can cause flower damage too, so in the coldest parts of the country choose later-flowering varieties rather than earlier-blooming ones. Other shady characters enjoying the company of camellias are rhododendrons, azaleas, daphne, hellebores, hostas, hydrangeas and Pieris sp.
Garden centres are packed to the gunnels with new season’s camellias over the next few months. A word of warning, however... it is always hard to leave with just one plant! Make sure you have plenty of room in the car before you leave home. Autumn is such a good time to plant as the soils are still warm so the plant can get its roots established and settled in before winter.
Seven ways to use camellias
Spaced about 70cm to 1m apart, camellias are very trainable into dense hedges and living walls. Choose varieties that have a tight habit as opposed to those with a loose, open style. Little pruning is required, other than to take the tips out to encourage plenty of side growth and a bushy habit.
- Gap fillers
Use camellias to fill in gaps in garden borders. They are a brilliant way to break up fence lines and add a charm to garden borders where flowers are a prerequisite. Allow a couple of metres between each plant so they have room to grow and plant them well back from the front of the garden as they can become quite wide. If you wish to plant something shorter in front, to add another layer of planting, trim the lower branches off to allow more space at ground level.
Where space is at a premium or a little design flare is desired, consider training camellias along wires and frames in an espalier system. The habits of the more-open sasanqua varieties work well for this type of growing; these have flexible stems that are easy to train along wires to create something special.
- Ground covers
Did you know there are some ground-hugging and low-growing camellia varieties? A popular one is hybrid camellia ‘Quintessence’. Not only does it have a low mounding habit, but its flowers are fragrant, too.
Shape it until you make it! Camellias are totally trainable, so for those people who prefer a bit of form and structure and want a bigger, fastergrowing alternative to box hedging, consider camellias. The glossy green leaves look good all year round and provide a neat and tidy subject for formal gardens. Note: Heavy trimming may result in lack of blooms. Camellias flower on previous season’s wood, which is often trimmed off when maintaining the shape of the topiary.
- Patio containers & tubs
Because camellias have a compact root system, they lend themselves to being grown in large tubs and containers. Enjoying a bit of shade, they are marvellous on patios and in outdoor living areas. These are long-lived shrubs and to avoid repotting every season or two, choose a large container – 30 litres or larger is ideal. A plant can last about five years without repotting if it is fed twice a year and has a regular watering regime.
Camellias have been used as bonsai specimens for centuries. Being shallow-rooted and with interesting bark, they can be used in this way. The smaller-leafed varieties and species seem to work best.
Did you know that camellia flowers will last a number of days in a vase? The flower buds don’t open once picked, so always select the fully open blooms. Fill the vase right up to the top with water. The petals make a nice alternative to rose petals for a spring wedding, scattered and decorating lawn areas.
How, when & where to grow
In the wild, camellias are found in forests on hillsides where they enjoy light shade from taller trees and larger shrubs. The soil is naturally acidic in these areas due to the leaf litter from surrounding trees naturally decomposing. Ideally, you want to try and replicate this in the home garden, too.
Camellias prefer a semi-shaded spot or some dappled shade under a tree. While they can cope with all-day sun, some of the larger-leafed hybrids tend to go yellow, which never looks that sharp. Apply specific camellia or acid plant fertiliser after flowering in spring or in early summer, as this is when the flower buds for next season are starting to form. Camellias have a shallow root system; therefore the root zone can dry out easily.
Over the hottest months, water is important. Soak the soil (not the leaves) once a week. Follow this with a layer of mulch, which will keep the moisture in the soil and the roots cool over the summer months.
Camellias prefer soil with good drainage. Avoid clay and boggy soils; they do not like wet feet for prolonged periods. If you are not sure what soil type you have, see if your neighbours have any growing, and if so, chances are you can grow them, too. For anyone in a newly built house, it will pay to do a soil test prior to planting anything, as any soils brought in will often vary from those traditionally in the area.
On the move
Have you ever planted a camellia and wanted to move it? Whether you’re moving house or just wish one wasn’t planted in that specific spot, camellias are rather robust plants that cope with being transplanted.
The process is rather simple. Aim to move the plant in the cooler months of the year, when the plant is in a dormant phase – May, June, July, August and September are all good months. Try to prepare the area where it is moving to before you dig the camellia out, or have a pot ready for putting it into temporarily. Take as much of the root ball as possible and give the plant a light trim all over to reduce the transplanting shock. Once planted in its new position, drench the soil once a month with a seaweed tonic to help encourage the new roots to form and, again, reduce transplant shock. You can expect the plant to shed a few leaves over the following months, but after six months new growth should begin to appear.
What you need to know
When to plant
All regions Autumn, winter and spring. Except in winter in the coldest climates, where the ground is frozen for long periods of time.
Where to plant
Part shade is best, avoid full sun.
When to prune
Prune after flowering to maintain shape, though this isn’t required every year.
Varies depending on the variety and the type of planting that is being done. For example, for hedges camellias are planted closer together than they would be in borders.
Where to buy
Garden centres and hardware stores. Online nurseries.