Tag Archives: camellia hedges

Plants that do not know their place – high maintenance culprits

Dudley on the bridge amidst 'Snow Showers'

Dudley on the bridge amidst ‘Snow Showers’

You will never see me advocating enthusiastically for low maintenance gardening. It is not our style. But I do think some plants need to know their place in life. Some clamour for way more attention than they deserve. We have been thinking about plants that are unjustifiably high maintenance. First to go here were almost all plants that require chemical intervention (spraying) to keep them looking good – or even alive. Goodbye underperforming roses and badly thrip-infested rhododendrons. These might be great in other climates, but here? No. Next in the spotlight are some of the other high maintenance plant options.

Who doesn’t love wisteria? But unless you are willing to give them the attention they require, they are best admired in somebody else’s garden. More than any other plant I can think of, they cannot just be planted and left. Miss a prune and it only takes one season for them to crack the spouting – I know this from experience. They also put out runners that R U N considerable distances. What is more, if you prune them incorrectly, they don’t flower which really defeats the purpose of growing them.

We dug three wisteria out this winter. Two were not flowering well enough to justify keeping them (not enough light, I think). The third was running amok in a wild area and threatening world domination. We have still kept about seven plants, including two on our bridge which are great performers but I am meticulous about pruning them both in summer and winter. Even so, they can join hands in the middle, trying to block passage through.

Climbing roses are another plant that I personally think are best admired in somebody else’s garden. I once planted ‘Albertine’ over an arch in the vegetable garden. It looked lovely in flower but then it produced many long whips covered in fierce thorns. Not only were they waving away waiting to ensnare anyone who walked down the path, pruning was a Major Mission. When it took me the better part of a day to prune it and tie it in, I decided that the rewards did not justify the effort. The advice often seen in English media about letting climbing roses scramble through trees and not worrying about pruning them at all does not translate to our gardening conditions. Any rose that strong is more likely to collapse the host tree, or swamp it at least. We are trialling some semi-thornless pillar roses but rampant, thorny climbers – no thanks.

magnolia-little-gemAny potentially large tree planted in the wrong place is going to be high maintenance. Vegetable time bombs, we call them. I see it with Magnolia grandiflora “Little Gem” in urban gardens more than any other plant I can think of. Aforementioned “Little Gem” is only little by comparison with something that might equally be called “Extremely Giant Gem”. It is not a dwarf tree. Plant it in a confined space – I know of a twin row of five or six aside lining a very narrow driveway in town – and it will either be high maintenance on an ongoing basis to keep it confined or an expensive removal job when it becomes a major problem.

Clipped hedges can give great definition in a garden – green walls, really. But I rate any hedge that needs trimming more than once or twice a year as high maintenance. While some people are quite happy to trim hedges frequently to keep sharp-edged definition, I see that activity as being like vacuuming the house. There is nothing creative about such a repetitious activity. To me, hedges are   utility tools, a background, not the centre of attention so they shouldn’t be demanding as much or more attention as the foreground stars of the garden. I would not plant any in teucrium or lonicera for these reasons.

A blight upon your buxus!

A blight upon your buxus!

Buxus used to be infinitely useful and undemanding hedging plant. But with the advent of buxus blight in many areas, that status has changed. I know of gardeners who are spraying their buxus hedges every few weeks, just to keep them leafy and to hold blight at bay. Woah there! Aside from environmental considerations (even if it is just a copper spray, the long term use of that is not good), it turns a handy, low maintenance plant into a high maintenance option.

Camellia Fairy Blush

Camellia Fairy Blush

Give me our small leafed camellia hedges any day. A hard prune in early spring followed by a light tidy-up in autumn is all they need. Also they light up a winter’s day while feeding the birds and over-wintering monarch butterflies. Camellias ‘Fairy Blush’, transnokoensis and microphylla are our preferred options.

We can and do fuss over some plants but utility plants? No. They need to know their place in life and that means not being so demanding.

First published in the September issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 



Garden lore: July 20, 2015 Petal blight, white camellia hedges and winter pruning

“One has a lot, an endless lot, to learn when one sets out to be a gardener.”

Vita Sackville-West, A Joy of Gardening (1958)


Petal blight

Petal blight

After writing about Winter Whites last week, referencing the ubiquitous white camellia hedges, of course I noticed this hedge on my way to town. My eye was drawn to the composition of brown and white flowers. It is a japonica camellia, though which one I am not sure. Closer examination revealed a bad case of petal blight, even this early in the season. There are two main giveaway signs. The first is the brown flowers hanging on to the bush. Most modern camellias are what is called self-grooming. They are bred to drop their spent blooms but those affected by petal blight hang on. The blighters. The second sign is shown by turning over a brown bloom and removing the calyx that holds the petals together. There is the tell-tale white ring of death – fungal spores. There is no remedy. You either live with it or you remove the plants.

I have never been a fan of japonica camellias for hedging. The foliage can go a bit yellow in full sun and both leaves and blooms are too big. Smaller leafed camellias, seen in the sasanquas, some of the species and the hybrids look much better. Miniature single flowers usually fall cleanly and disintegrate quickly, avoiding the sludgy brown effect below.

Camellia transnokoensis

Camellia transnokoensis

While our C. transnokoensis hedge needs to thicken up yet, we are charmed by its floral display. The sasanqua ‘Silver Dollar’ is also an excellent hedging choice. While the small flowers are nothing special viewed close-up, it is one of the first sasanquas to bloom for us and one of the last so it has exceptionally long season allied to compact growth and small leaves which are a good, dark green.

Camellia sasanqua Silver Dollar - an excellent hedging option

Camellia sasanqua Silver Dollar – an excellent hedging option 

While some claim that sasanquas can get petal blight, we haven’t seen it on our plants. And although the single flowered species and hybrids are not necessarily resistant, most set large numbers of flowers but each bloom only lasts a few days so they fall before blight takes hold.

On another topic, winter is pruning time. I did the wisterias on Friday. This is one plant family I recommend removing totally if you are not willing to prune them. They have dangerous proclivities. Most of the roses are done and I have started on the hydrangeas. Those in colder climates may be better to wait another month before tackling the last two because pruning encourages new growth which is vulnerable to frosts. The pruning guides I did several years ago as part of my Outdoor Classroom series give step by step instructions if you are not sure where to start – wisteria, hydrangeas, roses.

My favourite white camellias

Left to right: C. microphylla,  sasanqua Silver Dollar, transnokoensis, drupifera, gauchowensis, yuhsienensis

Left to right: C. microphylla, sasanqua Silver Dollar, transnokoensis, drupifera, gauchowensis, yuhsienensis

When you think about it, it is likely that at least two thirds of camellias are pink with the remaining third shared by red and white. In this country, we have a passion for white flowers. Indeed it is seen as a mark of sophistication in some quarters to create a garden with only white flowered plants (Sissinghurst’s famed white garden meets new-age minimalism in the far flung colony), perhaps alleviated by the occasional addition of one extra colour – touches of red maybe, or black for the ultra sophisticates.

That love affair with white extends to camellias, especially where hedges are concerned. I would guess there are many more white camellia hedges than pink or red ones. While I don’t put the whites on a pedestal above their coloured cousins, there is a charm in pristine, white flowers – though not if they then turn to sludge brown and stay on the bush.

I mentioned Camellia gauchowensis last week. After many weeks, it is still looking splendid and has plenty of flower buds yet to open. We think this is a sasanqua – the Japanese camellias which start flowering in autumn. Many sasanquas have a sort of mossy, earthy scent which is peculiar to this family and C. gauchowensis certainly has it. Some optimists on overseas websites refer to its wonderful fragrance but it is just that typical wet moss sasanqua smell.

The sasanquas bring us the greatest range of good performing pure whites. Pretty much everybody knows Setsugekka with its medium to large semi double flowers and golden stamens. In fact it is not dissimilar to C. gauchowensis, or Weeping Maiden for that matter. There is a whole string of them that are similar, varying more in habit of growth than in flower. C. gauchowensis is probably my favourite only because that is the one I have planted in a prominent spot where I see it frequently.

Early Pearly, one of the loveliest white sasanquas of them all

Early Pearly, one of the loveliest white sasanquas of them all

For beauty of white bloom in the sasanquas, it is hard to go past Early Pearly. It has what is described as a formal flower (a full set of petals with no visible stamens, held in tidy, overlaying circles). If I were to go for a white sasanqua hedge, I would probably pick Early Pearly but it is a matter of taste (and availability). It is the only white sasanqua I know with that flower form.

Away from the sasanquas, there are a fairly large number of species with small, white, single or semi double flowers. Tsaii is well known, though not my favourite. I think as it gets ever larger, it can be a little sparse in the foliage department. I have commented before about our choice of C. microphylla as both hedging and specimen plant. It has all but finished flowering for the season. We are also fans of C. transnokoensis (colloquially abbreviated to ‘transnok’) which has good dark foliage and masses of tiny white single flowers. In fact we are so keen on it that we have just planted two lengths of hedging and it is starting to open its flowers now. We are impressed by the somewhat obscure C. drupifera with its compact habit, dark foliage and plenty of mid-sized pure white flowers.

These single and semi double types have two big advantages. Many feed the birds in winter because the pollen and nectar are readily available in the visible stamens. They also fall and disintegrate quickly, so there is no sludge of spent blooms below. Most have blooms which are pretty short lived but to compensate for that, they set masses of flower buds so there are fresh flowers opening as the spent ones fall.

Whites are far more problematic in the japonica and hybrid camellias. These types tend to have flowers with much more substance – stiffer, more solid. This is where the show blooms come from and there is a wider range of flower form and blooms are often much larger. They also hang on to the bush for longer and the problem with white and pale blooms is that they show all weather damage and then hang about for longer in a brown and white state on the bush.

This one is Superstar. We can't pick it from Lily Pons

This one is Superstar. We can’t pick it from Lily Pons

The only ones I can honestly recommend in these larger flowered, mid season blooming types are Lily Pons or its twin sister, Superstar. We have never been able to pick the difference between the two. They are more semi doubles with fluted petals and golden stamens, showing better weather tolerance and more graceful ageing than other large whites of this type. We have never found a top performing, formal white japonica which doesn’t show every blemish.

In the end, it will come down to availability these days. The range of camellias offered for sale in this country has contracted dramatically. You may have to settle for what you can find, but take heart. There is a fairly high degree of flexibility possible because many actually look similar. In the end, choose on overall performance as a garden plant, not on the beauty of a single bloom.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.