Living with an icon

It is tough being a Taranaki icon in our household, or so Mark may tell you. Nobody accords you any respect at all and instead you become a target for endless jokes. Mind you, this is the man who, when I told him I wanted to be a sacred cow so that nobody would dare to write any more horrible letters to the editor about me, replied: “Well one out of two ain’t bad.” So I am milking the icon jokes for all they are worth, singing “I con see clearly now the rain has gone….” A friend contributed Ike on Tina Turner and I think we have several days worth yet to run but I will not inflict any more on readers.

Nor am I going to write about magnolias this week despite their being the genus which is bringing the accolades to Mark. It is a little too early in the season yet as the buds are just starting to break on most of the early flowering varieties. Instead we are back to camellias which provide colour in the season before magnolias.

At this time of the year, I fall in love with camellias all over again. The love affair wanes somewhat as the season progresses. The flowers can turn to mush and they loose the freshness but in June and July, I look at them with delight.

A camellia hedge is a camellia hedge. It tends to be either a formal clipped affair of one single variety or an informal and usually unclipped row of mixed varieties. I can not pretend that a camellia hedge, clipped or unclipped, is ever going to get me too excited. Really, it is just a hedge.

No, it is the interesting feature camellias which get me inspired. For some years I have been nurturing a little collection in pots. Every year I have hosed off the old potting mix around their roots and repotted them in fresh mix for winter, pruned and shaped the tops and transported them out to chosen spots in the garden, only to bring them back into the nursery when the heat of summer hits.

I decided this year it was too much work. While I advocate plain terracotta pots, they are heavy and I always need to find someone to give me a hand hauling the bigger ones around the garden. And I think I had about twenty of them, which seemed excessive. What to do? I hadn’t spent up to ten years nurturing these treasures just to stick them in the garden where they were not likely to remain much a feature. Therein lies the problem. It is not easy to feature a single camellia plant in a garden. Big mature plants in the right place can be thinned out, shaped and titivated. But little character plants can get a bit lost. They tend to meld.

There is an open verdict here as to whether my experimental solution will work and we won’t really know for a few years. We had a simple border which looked great for two weeks of the year. Backed by a buxus hedge, I had planted yellow and red roses, underplanted with mainly yellow and blue perennials. Bright summer colour, I thought. Fortunately, the two weeks of the year when it looked really good with a carpet of red soldier poppies and blue cornflowers were the two weeks around Rhododendron Festival but it was all downhill from there and for most of the other fifty weeks of the year it looked pretty scruffy.

At the time Mark was coming up with his theory that what appeals to people about new gardens is the crisp shape of plants. When freshly planted, each specimen stands on its own whereas when the garden matures, it loses that fresh definition and the plants grow into each other and start to form more of a wall of foliage. I wondered if we could combine my little camellia collection and the permanent freshness of the newly planted garden.

We gutted the border of all roses and perennials and made sure the surface was level. Then, having repotted my camellias for what I hope is the last time, we sank the terracotta pots into the garden with just the rims sitting above the surface. Where plants were rather pot bound, we cut the bottom off the pot so the roots have somewhere to go. So each plant is individually contained and individually displayed. For ground cover, I have used that creeping orange berry plant, on whose name I have a mental block which is not surprising because I have just found out that it is apparently rubus pentalobus. It is a rampant ground cover in sunny conditions even though I have only ever met one person who has seen it fruiting in Taranaki. (It is meant to have delicious orange berries but i think it prefers it hotter and drier.) I am hoping the groundcover will form a simple carpet through which seasonal bulbs can add spots of colour.

So far so good. The plants are indeed featured individually and collectively they create a look of formal structure. They are easily groomed and they should not need watering in summer because the terracotta will absorb moisture from the soil. I will see how they endure through the next few years. If we don’t like it, at least it will be easy to disassemble.

If you looking for varieties suitable to shape into character plants, look at the miniatures and slow growers such as Baby Bear, Itty Bit and Baby Willow which tend to be natural bonsais. The small leafed species are fun to work with (minutiflora, microphylla and a number of the other obscure types). Otherwise, varieties with slightly unpredictable growth habits and wayward branches can lend themselves to turning into feature plants. Bonsai artists often prefer misshapen plants to start with. If you want to create a standard or lollipop, make sure the plant you start with has a good straight central leader.

Camellia petal blight has decimated the flowering impact of the plants in this country. While that is very discouraging, their use and beauty as individual, shaped feature plants or as hedging should not be ignored. They are all evergreen plants and most have a fairly robust constitution which means they will tolerate some pretty harsh treatment. If you hate the big, slushy, spent blooms, keep to the small flowered varieties and the single flowers. There is still a good place for camellias in gardening.