Caring For Camellias

by William Y. Bennett

Fertilizers should be applied in an economic but methodical process to ensure a steady release of nutrients over the growing season. Applications can be applied a week or two before new growth buds begin to swell. It may be best to apply nutrition in small to moderate quantities of three or more periods from March to September. Higher nitrogen rates are best applied in spring, then changing to moderate nitrogen and phosphate, and to higher potassium in September. When using nitrogen-containing fertilizers, "slow release" nitrogen forms are much more efficiently taken up by plants. Many growing camellias in containers use one of the organic sources of nitrogen, such as cotton seed meal, applied once a month all year long. Seed meals release nitrogen as they decompose slowly and continually continuously over the long stretch. Slow continuous release keeps plants well nutrified during the entire growing season.

Early application of nutrients is essential for flower bud development in that the petal count can be related to general growth vigor of plants. Super buds begin formation as day length increases during May. Plants should be in good growth form by this time. Plants will be showing flower buds by the first part of July.

Water is not only essential for normal growth but a continuous supply ensures constant mineral uptake and maximum expansion of cells making up the new growth. Irregular water supplies interrupt the growth process which can result in stunted leaves and stems. If flower buds are being formed during water stress, their quality will be affected. Maximum water availability is even more important while flowers are opening. One needs to prepare a flexible watering program to include an irrigation system and a measuring device such as a simple rain gauge to ensure a constant water supply.

Major pruning should best be completed over winter or by early spring. While spring and summer growth develops, minor pruning can be accomplished by breaking out soft new growth. The ultimate pruning plan will reflect one's interests in camellia culture. Thick vegetation is the rule for landscape plants. Inside branches should be removed to reduce the accumulation of pests, scale in particular. Growers primarily interested in producing show flowers generally thin out more branches than those grown for landscape use. Flower buds are thinned, leaving large plump ones for show exhibition.

Pest control is a never-ending chore. While leaves and stems are young and tender, scale insects, "crawler" stage, move from last season's old leaves up to new succulent growth; ants move aphids to the newest growing points; spider mites appear from nowhere! Keep a constant lookout for these and other pests. When discovered, take immediate action. Your favorite garden center personnel or your county extension agent will be glad to help you. Select the appropriate control. The camellia grower's work is cut out for his or her cultivation schedule. Good nutrition, water control, light pruning and pest control result in beautiful blooms for the camellia flowering season.