“Some ladies asked me why their plant had died. They had got it from the very best place, and they were sure they had done their very best for it… They had made a nice hole with their new trowel, and for its sole benefit they had bought a tin of Concentrated Fertilizer. This they had emptied into the hole, put in the plant, and covered it up and given it lots of water, and – it had died! And yet these were the best and kindest of women, who would never have dreamed of feeding a new-born infant on beefsteaks and raw brandy.”
Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden (1899).
Renovating old camellias
Not all big old camellias are things of beauty. But they are one of the easiest plants to renovate and now is the right time to carry out drastic pruning. If you cut a camellia off at ground level, most will resprout and come again. Even glyphosate doesn’t kill them. However, if you want to keep the plant, don’t cut it back to the ground because what you will get is a thicket of new shoots in spring. Look for the natural shape of the plant and cut off just above where the branches are well formed – usually about a metre up on an old plant. This means that when it flushes into growth, you will have an attractive and established shape already.
You can cut right back to bare wood with no foliage left at all. It is only the very occasional, contrary camellia that will die instead of rushing into growth.
The plant will respond by pushing out a mass of new leaves and you should have reasonable cover by the end of the first summer and a lovely bushy specimen which is flowering again a year later. If you can see mottling or variegation on the leaves, make sure you disinfect your pruning tools before you touch any other camellias. Camellias are susceptible to virus but that is not necessarily bad. It is what gives variegated blooms. However, you don’t want to transfer virus to specimens that are free of it, hence cleaning your tools. Household bleach will suffice as a disinfectant.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.