[Image: camellia japonica flower]
For Release On Or After 01/31/14
By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
Few shrubs or trees are best purchased and planted while they are in bloom. One notable shrub, however, is currently in glorious bloom, and right now is an excellent time to plant it into your landscape. I am, of course, referring to the camellia, Camellia japonica.
Many different camellia varieties produce extraordinarily beautiful flowers from a couple of inches up to 6 or 7 inches across, and ranging in color from pure white to all shades of pink to the deepest red and even variegated. Flowering generally occurs from November through April on plants that grow to be 6 to 8 feet or more tall with handsome, shiny, evergreen foliage.
As beautiful as they are in the ground, camellias adapt happily to life in containers and are particularly impressive grown that way. Now is also a great time to purchase and plant camellias in containers. Growing camellias in containers allows gardeners to cultivate them where ground space is not available, such as an apartment balcony or a deck or patio. It also allows you to move the plant around to different locations – bringing it to a prominent position while its flowers are at their best, and placing it in a more out-of-the-way spot at other times, for instance. Their hardiness makes the need to move them into a protected location unnecessary except for the rare occasions when temperatures will go below 20 degrees and the root ball might freeze.
Eventually, a camellia will require a container about 2 feet wide and deep as it reaches maturity. This takes a number of years, however. It is best to grow camellias in smaller pots appropriate to their size, gradually shifting them to larger containers as they outgrow the current ones.
The camellia is not one of those plants that suffers the minute it gets a bit potbound, but you shouldn’t allow it to remain in that state for more than a couple of years. Otherwise, the growth will be stunted and flowers will be few.
When repotting, shift the plant into a new pot only a few inches or one size larger. Planting into an excessively larger pot creates a situation where overwatering and root rot are more likely to occur.
The type of pot you choose is as much a matter of taste as what is best for the camellias. Black plastic pots from the nursery work fine but look a bit too utilitarian for most landscapes. Decorative plastic in muted colors, terra cotta, fiberglass, glazed pottery and wood all make suitable containers, although termites make wood a questionable choice.
Whatever container you choose, make sure the drainage holes are adequate – camellias cannot tolerate “wet feet.” A layer of gravel may be helpful for drainage when you use the largest containers, but otherwise is of little benefit.
Drainage also is affected by the potting mix you use. Do not use garden soil. Instead, choose fast-draining soil mixes specifically blended for use in containers. Experienced gardeners should feel free to amend commercial mixes with sifted compost, finely ground composted pine bark or other materials to create a satisfactory mix.
When planting or repotting your camellia, do not plant it any deeper than it was growing in its original container. This is very important because covering the surface roots of your plant with as little as a couple of inches of soil can be disastrous. Make sure you leave “head space” in the container; the level of the soil should be an inch or two lower than the rim of the pot to facilitate watering.
Watering should be done as needed. Use your finger or a wooden dowel to probe the soil to determine how dry or damp it is. Always allow the surface to become quite dry before watering, but do not wait until the plant begins to show drought stress. You need to water regularly, even daily during hot, summer weather. Camellias are likely to drop their flower buds if you allow them to become too dry before watering. When watering, apply enough water so that some comes out of the drainage holes.
Fertilization is best done with a soluble fertilizer for acid-loving plants applied once or twice a month during spring and summer. If you prefer not having to remember to fertilize that often, use a slow-release fertilizer such as Osmocote or Dynamite. Apply once in March, and it will provide nutrients all through the growing season.
Once your camellia is planted into its final large pot, it will spend the rest of its life in that size container. To keep the plant vigorous, every two or three years lay the pot on its side and remove the root ball. Trim off 1 or 2 inches from around the sides, and about one-quarter of the root ball from the bottom. Add enough fresh potting mix to the bottom of the original container equal to the amount of root ball removed. Replace the plant, add new soil around the sides, water thoroughly and you’re all done. This is best done in late winter or early spring before new growth appears.
When you think about using plants in containers to embellish your front entrance, patio, courtyard, balcony or deck, don’t forget the outstandingly beautiful camellia.