By Rose Kraakman
Although they have a bad rap for being messy (Any heavy flowering plant with masses of gorgeous blooms is going to be a wee bit messy at the end of flowering), camellias flower reliably and heavily, year after year with little attention. Even dense, older trees can be revitalised and made more elegant by thinning out branches and pruning 'so a bird can fly through'.
Their flowers are like the roses of winter and there is no doubting the beauty of camellia flowers. They have many different shapes, colours and perfumes. But in a world not short of spectacular blooms, camellias offer so much more.
As tough evergreen shrubs with attractive foliage, camellias provide structure and substance to the garden all year round and can be grown with ease in a wide range of climates.
When they're not in flower, camellias make an attractive plain green backdrop for other plants. They're adaptable to a huge range of landscape uses and fit any size or style of garden.
Camellias make good dense hedges; 'Setsugekka' is a popular sasanqua often planted as a hedge, use 'Paradise Joan' if you're after a rich Watermelon red with gold stamens, and, with its slow dense growth, 'Yuletide' is perfect for a shorter hedge.
With its supple branches, 'Moonlight' is a variety of camellia easily trained into an espalier on a fence or wall. For standardising or topiary, try 'Volcano' or 'Brushfields Yellow', with their upright form. Camellia 'Buttons and Bows' has lovely formal double flowers in shades of soft pink, looks fabulous as a standard or a column.
To keep a Camellia confined to a tight space, prune each year after flowering to shorten the side branches. This will encourage more branching (and hence more flowers) to grow close in to the main trunk.
For containers, 'Night Rider' is a good choice, with its slow growth rate and attractive red new growth. It has spectacular black-red flowers.
There is even a ground cover Camellia called 'Marge Miller' with double pink flowers. Good for cascading down banks, filling in under trees and amongst shrubs.
When you are planting your Camellia, make sure you enrich the soil with plenty of compost and slow-release fertilizer. Keep them mulched with a 10cm layer, keeping the mulch away from the trunk. Newly-planted Camellias will need to be watered in dry periods with a thorough soaking every 4-5 days.
The best time to prune Camellias is soon after they have flowered, before they put on their new growth. Fertilize after pruning – they like organic fertilizers such as Roksolid or sheep pellets, which will also build the humus in the soil. Or use a special Camellia fertilizer for acid soil-loving plants.