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By Richard Mims
Photograph Anne K Moore

In CAMELLIA CULTURE PART 1, Richard taught us the correct way to dig a hole, amend the soil, and position the plant in the ground. Now learn the importance of pH, water, and why the correct type of mulch makes a difference.

Mulch must be airy, not compacted, not over 3 to 5 inches deep and of a material that will not excessively rob nitrogen from the soil. Any “fresh” humus materials require nitrogen to decompose and will use nitrogen from the soil beneath. The least nitrogen robbing material would be fresh pine straw, and fresh pine bark. Other barks, such as cypress, may last longer and look better, but too much raw wood is attached to the bark.

Do not use wood chips (dyed or otherwise) that are not completely composted. Avoid un-composted mulches containing wood. To compensate for mulch materials depleting nitrogen from plant roots, follow fertilizer programs precisely according to directions. If you use a six-week fertilizer, add at the end of each six weeks through July.

Stop outdoor fertilizing in July to keep new growth from happening just before a frost that will kill it back. If you use a three-month timed release, it would be better to use a six-week fertilizer at the end of the blooming period to get a good spurt of new growth, then use the timed release to get through the rest of spring. This three-month timed release will still be available for a heavy bud set beginning in late June.

If you tend to have dry soil and want to assure water stays around the plant, you can form a temporary berm of soil out from the plant to hold in water. It will eventually wash away and level out. 

Nutrients and micronutrients from the ground pass through organisms and are available to a plant only when the pH is within a certain range. While it was once believed that the pH for camellias should be very acid - below 6, modern growers have learned that 6.5  (7 being neutral) seems to grow better camellia plants and blooms because all the nutrients the plant needs is available to them at that pH level. 

PLANTING:  Container grown camellias could be pot bound. The soil could be dried out, hard to get wet, with few organisms to convert nutrients for plants. You can wash the existing soil from the roots with a gentle stream of water. Do not bang the plant on the ground or pull soil off with gloved fingers. This breaks roots and should not be done.

WATER: Water is a MUST for camellias. The ground MUST be porous for water to pass through and not puddle around and stay on roots. Good drainage is necessary. In low places, camellias thrive better in raised beds. However, do not allow the plant to suffer for moisture. The moisture must be deep around all roots and soaking is better than frequent light watering. The camellia leaf will crinkle and curl when it really needs water. Don’t let this happen.

PRUNING: From the very first year, pruning and shaping is necessary. The camellia is a beautiful tree-shrub twelve months a year. When it is not in bloom in the dead of winter and early spring, it is a magnificent, glossy-leaved shrub that will add evergreen texture to any landscape.

To keep the plant in balance for your landscape and to have large, beautiful blooms, thin branches must be removed. Open up the center of the shrub. When looking at the bush it should not look similar to a trimmed hedge but light and airy with lateral branches reaching out arms. The very best flowers will grow on these lateral arms, seldom from the buds in the top where energy is being concentrated for growth rather than flowers.

Once a camellia is several years old, it is very difficult to correct mistakes without hard labor. A beautiful plant that blooms well is a joy to behold. Give it time and the correct attention and it will give you years of pleasure.

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