Tag Archives: clipping camellias

The difference between clipping, hacking and blind pruning

Camellia yuhsienensis – not self grooming but apparently resistant to camellia petal blight. To save you the bother of contacting me: no, we no longer sell any plants at all these days and I think it is unlikely that this particular camellia is still commercially available in New Zealand.

‘Blind pruning’ is not, as some might assume, an activity carried out by the visually impaired. An old horticulturist introduced me to the term years ago. Essentially, it is pruning that is carried out so that the end result does not show evidence of it, even though it can be quite extreme. Skilled and careful pruning, as opposed to clipping or, at its worst, hacking. It is a higher-level skill.

I lacked confidence in my ability to carry out extreme pruning without making it obvious so usually left it up to Mark but this year I doubted that he was going to work to my timetable and told myself I can do it. Camellias are obliging plants to work with because if you get it wrong, they come away again with new season’s growth able to sprout from bare wood.

Clipping is done with hedge clippers. We do it with our camellia hedges and with some shaped camellias. It is what gets the sharp definition. The first shaping takes skill – and time – but from then on, any reasonably capable person with a set of sharp clippers can maintain that shape.

Before…

After. Definite hacking on the middle plant but that was the only option to get back the shape I want

Extreme cutting – hacking, as I call it – is unsightly until the fresh flush of growth covers the bare ends but it is sometimes the only option. In this border, I wanted to get the middle camellia, ‘Spring Festival’ back to a mounded growth sitting lower than the four standards behind it. With very little foliage left in the middle of the bush, there was no alternative to extreme cutting and now is the time of the year to do it because it will put on a flush of new growth very soon. It won’t flower well next year but should hit its stride again in 2022.

The four standard camellias behind are all Mark’s hybrid ‘Pearly Cascade’ and they needed more love. Between the two photos, I have removed at least a third of the growth and they look better for it. You would have to look close into the plant to find the fresh cuts because it is not obvious to view. That is blind pruning, as I understand it.

Before…

… and after

The feature camellias in the sunken garden area have not had my attention for the last two or three years and they did not look lovely this year. This is ‘Pearly Cascade’ again, grown au naturelle rather than the grafted standards in the earlier border. It is a pretty enough little camellia although the flower is not by any means unique. It is very like ‘Nicky Crisp’ in bloom. It was as much the habit of growth that encouraged Mark to name and release it. It keeps excellent foliage in full sun and stays low with arching, spreading growth rather than shooting upwards. This plant must be 15 or 20 years old and has just received the odd passing nip and tuck to keep it to size.

But that spreading foliage is dense and doesn’t allow spent blooms to fall. Breeding for self-grooming – where a plant drops its spent blooms – was a big focus for Mark’s camellia breeder Uncle Les and his father, Felix. It stops that ugly look where sludgy brown blooms stay on the bush. But when the foliage is too dense, the blooms can’t fall and that has become even more of problem with rampant camellia petal blight.

‘Pearly Cascade’

Mark is unusually derisive (he not a man much given to derision) about the idea of ground cover camellias or michelias. Both are heavy blooming plants and when they are spreading, as ground cover is, there is no way those spent blooms can fall so they just congregate as a mush on top.

I started on this plant by nipping back the top to the height I want, followed by shortening the sides. This is all work done with secateurs. Then it is an exercise in delving into the body of the plant and reducing the dense growth – taking out wispy branches, short growths and badly crossing branches first and then selecting which remaining stems are superfluous and can be cut back flush to the trunk. It is precise work and it takes time. There is much stepping back to look. In the end, I reduced the plant by about 50% and it looks a whole lot better for it.

Before…

The two C. yuhsienensis were more of a challenge. They had grown huge without us really noticing, larger than we want in this area. This is a beautiful species but it is not self grooming at all. Mind you, with all those spent blooms still on the bush, we examined them and can report that it appears to be impervious to camellia petal blight so that is a bonus.

… and after

and the matched plant on the other side

I needed the kitchen step ladder and a pruning saw as well as secateurs but the approach was the same – reduce the height, narrow the spread and then thin the middle. Even I was surprised by how much I removed but the plants look a whole lot better for that. Looking from above, I can see that I need to remove more from the right-hand side of the one at the front to get a better balanced plant. The four lollipop camellias – another compact cultivar of Mark’s that we call ‘Pink Poppet’ but never released commercially, still need to be trimmed but they are a hedge clipper job. They get shaped like an umbrella or mushroom because we want that flattish, curved shape rather than round top-knots.   The tops are currently out of proportion to the stems on these grafted standards.

Those are piles of prunings lying on the grass beside the four plants trimmed so far

Mark’s advice, given to me often down the years, is not to keep lifting and trimming up plants. Over time what evolves – and we have a few examples of these from my earlier efforts – is a plant with bare legs that looks as though it has been grazed by stock up to the level where they can no longer reach. That is why the top down, outside in and then thinning the interior works better to retain a more natural form. If you plan to keep a plant clipped or trimmed, longer term it is easier if you keep the height down to what can be managed without a ladder.

It took hard pruning to achieve this shape, now it is maintained by a simple annual haircut with sharp hedge clippers

Clipping gives sharp definition, at least for a couple of months after the annual trim

Postscript

I didn’t set out to write a definitive piece about pruning camellias but will add two points and links to earlier advice on chainsaw pruning.

Firstly, if you are ever pruning camellias with variegated flowers and foliage (often showing as mottled yellow and green leaves but not every leaf will be mottled), you are likely pruning a camellia which has a virus that causes such variegations. Make sure you disinfect your cutting tools afterwards, before touching any other camellias or you risk transferring the virus. Virus is not always bad but it will weaken the plant and you probably don’t want mottled foliage throughout your camellias.

The mottled leaves and the irregular variegation on the flowers are a good indicator of the presence of virus

Secondly, if you are going to do the chainsaw massacre number and cut a camellia off close to the ground, we recommend cutting about a metre up and leaving some framework to the plant. If you cut it off close to the ground, it will re-sprout as a thicket and you will never get a good-shaped plant out of it, though you will be able to clip to a mound. If you leave some branch structure and a central leader (main trunk), you will get a better-looking plant in the long term.

Now is the time (late winter to early spring here) to carry out such extreme pruning so the fresh growth that will sprout soon can be made on the bare wood.

This piece from 2016 shows the results of chainsaw pruning six months later.

Back in 2011 when I used to do step by step sequences for the newspaper, I covered hard pruning of camellias. My photography has improved a bit since then but the information is still relevant.

Lock down day 5 and the first camellia blooms of the season

Left to right: Camellias brevistyla white and pink, puniceiflora and microphylla

Autumn has arrived. The wind has a chill element that was absent just a few weeks ago and I have packed away the summeriest of my summer clothing. Well, bathing suits, sarong and sleeveless tops so far. The very earliest camellias are opening their first flowers.

It is not the sasanquas that bloom first. It is obscure species that we rushed to buy when NZ’s camellia specialist, Neville Haydon, announced his retirement. These are hardly spectacular but they have a simple charm on a small and detailed scale. I had to pick them because my camera skills are not up to doing them justice on the bush.

Camellia brevistyla

Starting with Camellia brevistyla, we have used this extensively for hedging in the caterpillar garden. Its flowering season is the shortest of all but it can be clipped to a tidy hedge around 60cm high and it becomes a mass of pretty white blossom for not much longer than about 10 days.

The one rogue pink brevistyla

Mark raised all the hedging brevistyla plants from seed and one – just the one – is flowering pink. I wondered if I should be replacing it in the quest for perfect uniformity in the hedges but no. The odd imperfection is delightful in its own way and it is only for a brief period that it is visibly different to all its seedling siblings.

Camellia puniceiflora

Next may be the tiniest of all we grow– little Camellia puniceiflora. Fully open, it measures about 2cm across and the blooms resemble tiny daisies on the bush. Though when I think of it, Camellia trichoclada is so small that even though it is planted in a prominent spot that we walk past many times a day, even we can fail to register it in bloom. it is not a camellia you grow for is floral display.

Camellia microphylla with ripe seed pods from last season

Finally, we have Camellia microphylla with its seed. The flower does not look so very different to brevistyla. Maybe ever so slightly larger and a botanical analysis with a magnifying glass will pick other differences. Because we grow them both, I can observe that the bush C. microphylla grows taller and the flowering season is longer – maybe 20 days in full flight instead of just 10. I think its foliage is a better forest green but that may just be because it is growing in shadier conditions.

These species won’t be widely available for sale in NZ but can be raised from seed with relative ease. The botanic gardens around the country usually establish collection so find the person in charge of camellias if you want to try and find seed to grow. We also get seedlings germinating beneath them all, rather too many of little brevistyla.

Our entranceway, after the camellias had been given their October prune. Camellia sasanqua Elfin Rose behind the palm, C. puniceiflora clipped as a three tier cake stand, C. trichoclada is the low flat plinth at the front, C. gauchowensis as the column. All shapes have evolved from accentuating the natural form of each plant.

I have been trying to discipline myself to get back into daily writing but my scattered brain has me also trying to sort through and file the last six months of photographs. So it was I found these photos of camellias straight after clipping. The date on the photos is November 1 so obviously Lloyd was doing the clipping round in October. We only clip once a year. The timing isn’t critical – any time after flowering and after the plants have made their first flush of new growth – but if you leave it any later, you will be cutting off next season’s flower buds.

The same scene five months after clipping

I took the second photo of the same scene yesterday to show it after five months. There is a slight blurring of the sharp edges now but overall, they have remained fairly crisp. That is why we can get away with a once a year clip. They won’t make more growth until after flowering.

I have written often about the scourge of camellia petal blight and the devastating effect on the japonicas. We have a fair number of big old japonicas dating back to Mark’s father’s days of collecting and breeding them, along with a collection of reticulatas. These days they are very messy in flowering season as the blighted buds and blooms drop prematurely and lie around looking ugly and brown. We need to do a major review plant by plant right around the garden but, even blighted and with a messy season, many of them serve a function as a green backdrop and as shelter in our windy climate. These bigger leaved varieties do not clip in the same way as the smaller foliaged species, hybrids and sasanquas.

We don’t want to clip all our camellias. Heavens above, we have quite enough to do here without making more work for ourselves. But clipping key plants gives an interesting punctuation point in the garden. They do look very sharp immediately after their annual haircut and the older the plant, the more characterful it can be made to look.

Camellia sasanqua Mine No Yuki

 

 

 

Tikorangi Notes: a folk art garden, bearded irises, macadamia nuts and a bit of advice

Pat and Brian’s garden 

Either Pat or Brian – or both – like a bit of symmetry in places

I called in to see a local friend and as we walked around her garden, I figured that what she creates is a form of folk art. Hers is a heavily ornamented and decorated garden and regular readers will know that this is not my style at all. But I find Pat’s creative instincts charming in context. Many of her garden pieces have a story to them and they all have meaning for her. She doesn’t just buy something and place it in the garden. She repurposes, restyles and recycles items that others would dump and they bring both her and her husband a great deal of pleasure.

Rusty old cream cans repurposed to grow air plants 

Washing machine bowls reused as strawberry planters

Pat does not know the names of any of her plants and she has no botanical curiosity. But, and it is a big but, she has an eye for good plants and she has always been willing to buy plants that take her fancy. While she may not know the names, there are some interesting plants and a wide variety within her garden.

Above all, I think I like her garden because there is personal joy in it for both her and Brian. It is not a show garden but they keep it very tidy indeed because that is how they like it. I have been into a few gardens in my time that I would describe as joyless places, done for show and admiration from others, but more like a chore for the owners than a source of personal delight. Give me Pat’s folk art instead any day.

My blue-purple bearded irises are all in bloom. We are not bearded iris territory – they are better in drier climates with hotter summers than we get – and it is not easy for me to find good places for them. I was given a number of excellent named varieties several years ago but I see I only have one variety left and I have lost the name of it. It has a large flower and is very pretty, arguably much more so than the smaller flowered, robust one that forms most of my patch. But that is looking at the blooms as specimen flowers. Grown as a bed of several square metres, the plain Jane, utility variety is a way better performer. The big powder blue needs staking or it starts to lean and then the blooms get damaged very quickly. There is a lesson there if you are buying bearded irises. If you want to grow them as single specimens and are willing to stake and support them, then go for the big flowers if that is what appeals to you. If you want to do a bed of pretty colour, choose smaller flowered varieties that can stand up straight on their own.

Decorative pink racemes of macadamia flowers. The white flowered forms we have are nowhere near as eyecatching. 

Our macadamia trees are flowering and the nuts are dropping. There are reasons why these nuts are expensive to buy and it is to do with the cracking of them, I am sure. Astonishingly, the rats can bore into the rock-hard shells but it takes careful positioning and a sharp hammer blow for humans. We have tried a range of different macadamia nut crackers but they are tedious to use when you have to load the nuts one at a time and then separate them from their shells.

A simple mat but a gamechanger when it comes to cracking macadamia nuts

I love social media. It makes my world larger, as I say. It was Twitter that delivered me a recommendation last week that is a game-changer when it comes to cracking macadamia nuts. Get one of the doormats with round holes in it, was the advice. We just happen to have what I assume is calf matting that serves the same purpose – holding the nuts in place so they don’t skitter away or worse – fly into windows and break them (this has happened before). Now, we can crack up to 100 nuts at a time and have them stay in place. True, it takes 100 hammer blows to crack 100 nuts but then lift the mat, remove the kernels and sweep away the shells and Bob’s your uncle. I am picking up the falling macadamia nuts with a great deal more enthusiasm.

Finally, two pieces of seasonal advice. In New Zealand, the weeding round right now (that you may or may not be doing but we certainly are) is arguably the most important one of the year. The weeds are romping away but not many are setting seed yet. If you can get them out now – right now – you will reduce future weeding. And get mulch onto any bare soil before it really starts to dry out. That will also contribute in a major way to stopping more weeds from germinating.

We don’t clip many plants but this little camellia collection makes a focal point at our entry

If you are pruning or clipping, keep a close eye out for birds’ nests. Our feathered friends go to a huge amount of trouble building nests and while I may moan about the sparrows and blackbirds, there is something very sad about committing the ornithological equivalent of infanticide. We are currently doing the annual clip and shape on the camellias and michelias that we like to keep as defined forms. Hedges were done last month.

Mine No Yuki received her annual trim this week