How to Grow Camellias

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Camellia japonica

Camellia japonica

Camellias are a cherished plant in southern gardens. Since the fall flowering ones have been in bloom I have been getting a lot of questions about them. There are two types of camellias commonly used in eastern North Carolina. The Japanese camellia is a large plant that gets 15 to 20 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. Japanese camellias have large leaves and flowers that are 4 to 8 inches in diameter. Blooms may open from early winter to spring. Sasanqua camellias have smaller leaves on a plant that is normally 6 to 10 feet high and about 3 to 5 feet wide (there are some dwarf types). Flowers are only 2 to 3 inches in diameter and open in the fall or early winter.

Both types come with flower colors of pink, red, and white and form a broad, densely branched evergreen pyramid. Common container grown sizes are 1, 3, 5, and 7 gallon. Camellias like acidic (pH 5 to 6.5), well-drained soils. It is best to plant them on the north side of a house or in semi-shade. Container plants can be planted at any time of the year.

Spacing of camellias is important as it is with all plants. Based on their size, research has shown that sasanqua camellias should be planted at least 4 feet from a wall to allow access for maintenance and good air circulation. If camellias are to be used in a hedge, plant them 5 to 6 feet on center. To keep sasanqua camellias individual, plant at least 8 feet on center. Plant Japanese camellias 6 to 8 feet from a wall, 8 feet on center for a hedge, and at least 12 feet on center to keep plants individual.

As with other plants, if planting several camellias close together or mass planting with other plants, it is best to till the entire bed to a depth of 6 inches. This loosening of the soil allows for better development of roots. Planting holes for single camellias should be 3 to 5 times the width of the root ball and the same depth. After planting, don’t forget the mulch to prevent weeds and hold moisture.

Camellias can do well in eastern North Carolina, but in some winters we may have cold injury. Cold injury may occur to flowers that open from December to April. Despite this, camellias are worth the risk. There are a few things you can do to protect camellias from winter injury. Before a cold front arrives, make sure that camellias and other evergreen plants are watered well. If the plants are fertilized properly throughout the year and are healthy, they will be better able to withstand cold temperatures. Planting in partial shade also provides protection from quickly changing temperatures. The last measure of protection, but probably the first you should think about when selecting camellias is cold hardiness. Some cultivars hold up better to cold temperatures than others.

Camellias should be fertilized with materials containing 10 to 16 percent nitrogen. Some examples are 12-4-8, 12-6-6, or 16-4-8. These materials often have some nitrogen in slow release form. Generally, about 2 to 4 pounds per 1000 square feet of a complete fertilizer like the ones listed above is recommended per year. It is best to apply this fertilizer in a split application. Apply about one pound of fertilizer per 1000 square feet in March, May, and July. Don’t fertilize after August since it may promote new growth that could be damaged by cold temperatures later. Pruning camellias should be done following flowering. Since camellias may bloom in fall, winter, or early spring, timing must be based on each individual plants bloom time. Prune selectively to shape plants as needed.

If you have gardening questions about camellias, other shrubs, trees, lawns, or flowers give the Pitt County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers a call at 902-1705. The Pitt County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Office is staffed on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon this winter. Messages can be left any time by calling 902-1705. Send email questions to pittcomgv@hotmail.com. You can find out more about what is going on at the Extension office in Pitt County by visiting http://pitt.ces.ncsu.edu including our Bryce Lane: 40 Years of Horticulture gardening event on January 30, 2016 featuring Bryce Lane, Emmy winning, retired NC State Horticulture Professor. He will share his observations and inspirations from his 40 years of horticulture experience and 30 years at NC State University. Limited tickets are available prior to the event by calling Carol Haywood at 902-1709, visiting the Extension office at 403 Government Circle, Greenville, NC, or at Wild Birds Unlimited in Greenville. If you want to learn more about what is going on at the Pitt County Arboretum visit www.pittcountyarboretum.blogspot.com.