Camellia task to ‘never skip’ in autumn to ensure flowers bloom

Gardeners' World: Monty Don details how to water camellias

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Camellias have earned the nickname “winter roses” and with good reason. These lovely evergreen plants come in many shapes and sizes and produce some of the loveliest flowers the cool season has to offer. Whether gardeners are planning on growing camellias, or they already have them in their garden, there are a few key steps needed to keep them looking and blooming their best. Once established, they are very low maintenance, high payoff plants. If they are happy where they are planted, all they need is a little attention twice, maybe three times a year, and their blooms will flourish.

Melissa Strauss, gardening expert, has shared her top tips to help camellias perform their best during the blooming season.

Skip the fertiliser 

Camellias only need to be fertilised two to three times per year. The first time should be in the spring, to encourage new buds to form. Then again in early summer to support new growth. 

A third application can be given in late summer or very early autumn, but the expert warned that gardeners should “try to limit that event unless your plant looks like it needs the boost”.

Fertilising in autumn should be limited as this causes new growth which is more tender and susceptible to frost. Mellisa explained: “Camellias will bloom with no fertilising at all. But a little goes a long way in increasing the number and vibrancy of the flowers produced. Timed correctly, fertilising is helpful to their flower production, but poor timing can lead to new growth damage.”

Don’t skip on deadheading 

Like most flowering plants, camellias benefit from deadheading. Deadheading helps them to channel nutrients into the flowers that have yet to bloom by pruning off the spent blooms. Many varieties of camellias form more than one bud per branch.

The gardening expert said: “Never skip deadheading as it removes the spent flowers so that the surrounding buds get more exposure and nutrients, and are more likely to bloom.

“Some varieties will drop their own spent blooms. Many single petal form varieties fall into this category. This will be apparent early on, as the first blooms to fade will naturally fall off. This habit can be quite lovely, as the petals form a blanket of colour on the ground beneath the plant.”

For varieties that don’t drop their petals, a gentle hand is best for deadheading. Rather than pruning off the spent blooms with a tool, this is best done gently and by hand.

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Very carefully twist the spent bloom until it comes loose. Don’t pull too hard as this can damage the tender new growth, and any buds that are tucked behind the spent flowers.

Apply mulch

Early autumn is a great time to apply mulch around camellias. Camellias like an acidic environment to help them absorb the magnesium and iron they need so adding organic material around the base of the plant will help to increase the acidity of the soil as it breaks down over time.

Melissa explained that gardeners can use fallen leaves from trees as mulch. However, for those who do not have trees Mellisa said: “If you don’t have deciduous trees to provide free mulch, compost or pine bark mulch are great, as well. This protects the roots of the plant. It also helps provide the soil a little extra acidic boost that camellias crave.”

Skip the pruning 

Apart from deadheading, camellias “should never be pruned in autumn”, says the gardening expert. 

For those who have performed a hard pruning in the spring to drastically reshape their camellia, they should thin out new growth at the end of the summer growth season.

This involves cutting away come from the growth near the trunk, to make space for air circulation and light to reach the interior of the plant, which helps protect against pests and diseases.

Melissa added: “For camellias that you expect to bloom the following year, the best time to prune is right after they finish blooming. 

“This will allow maximum time for bud development. If you prune in autumn, you will be pruning off those buds.”

Provide just enough water

Camellias don’t need a ton of water, but when they are newly planted, they should be watered once or twice per week, depending on the rainfall and time of year. 

Melissa explained: “In autumn you only need to water newly planted shrubs once every week or two. If planting in the spring, once a week is a better rule.”

Mature camellias need very little additional watering, except in times of very scarce rainfall. Gardeners shouldn’t need to water a camellia once it reaches four years old. 

When blooming, mature plants need about an inch of water per week. If that’s not coming in the way of rainfall, give them a good watering once a week. If you’re getting regular rainfall, leave them to their business, they will get by just fine.

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