11 Tips For Beautiful Fall Blooming Camellias This season
Camellias are a fall gardener favorite. With their colorful blooms and vividly colored flowers, these plants can make a statement in any garden. In this article, gardening expert and camellia enthusiast Melissa Strauss walks through her top tips for beautiful camellia blooms in your garden up through first frost!
Camellias have earned the nickname “winter roses,” and with good reason. These lovely evergreen plants come in many shapes and sizes and produce some of the loveliest flowers the cool season has to offer. Hardy in zones 7-10, there are thousands of varieties to choose from, in a wide range of colors and petal formations.
Whether you are planning on growing camellias, or you already have them in your garden landscape, there are a few key steps you can take to keep them looking and blooming their best. Once established, they are very low maintenance, high payoff plants. If they are happy where they are planted, all they need is a little attention twice, maybe three times a year, and their blooms will flourish.
In this article, I want to address the specific needs of fall-blooming camellias. There are two very popular species of ornamental camellia plants, c. Japonica and c. Sasanqua. The former is predominantly a winter-blooming, treelike species. The latter is shrubbier, and has a very hardy root structure, as well as an early blooming habit, making them very popular in the Southern United States.
Here are a few tips for planting new fall-blooming camellias, as well as some ways to help mature plants perform their best during the blooming season.
Choose a Well Drained Spot
Camellias are surprisingly drought tolerant and hardy when planted in the right spot. Keep in mind when choosing a location for your camellias that they are very susceptible to root rot.
Camellia roots do not like to sit in water. This means they aren’t great for planting in areas that are marshy or consistently damp. The last place a camellia wants to live is in a low lying, swampy area. This is a surefire way to shorten the life of your camellia.
Choose a spot that is slightly elevated or has a gentle slope to it for best results. If you suspect you’ve planted in the wrong location, it is best to move it as soon as possible. Camellias establish roots in the cooler months.
Transplanting in the fall will give it ample time to establish roots in a new location. This is important to do before it must face the hot summer months.
A Little Extra Sun
Another factor to consider when planting a sasanqua camellia is sunlight. While japonica camellias prefer only dappled sunlight, sasanquas are more sun tolerant, and some can even tolerate full sun once they are mature.
I wouldn’t recommend planting a new sasanqua in full sun. But you don’t need to be quite as vigilant about protecting them from a few hours of afternoon sunlight if the spot you have your heart set on is exposed to a bit more than dappled light.
Fall bloomers, in general, can take a bit more sun than this. They should still have some shelter from too much afternoon sun while they are young plants.
Test Soil pH
Camellias thrive in acidic soil. A pH of 5.5-6.5 is about perfect. I like to say that if your soil is keeping your hydrangeas blue, go ahead and start planting. It never hurts, however, to test the pH of your soil before planting. Occasional testing is also helpful from time to time to determine whether or not you need to supplement to raise the acidity (lowering the pH).
Soil acidity tests are available commercially if you want to go ahead and test for yourself. A more complete soil analysis can generally be obtained at a local testing lab. Many universities offer this service and will give you a full analysis of your soil.
The reason that camellias like acidic soil is a simple one. They require quite a lot of magnesium and iron. These nutrients are best broken down and made ready for absorption in an acidic environment.
There are several ways to increase the acidity of your soil. Adding sulfur or vinegar to your soil will work in the short term. Consistently applying organic matter, such as leaves or compost, is a more long-term solution to alkaline soil.
Consider a Container
If you are thinking about planting a new camellia late in the year, consider planting it in a pot for the first year. This will allow it to strengthen and be able to protect and monitor the temperature, sun exposure and watering.
This isn’t a necessity, as the ideal time to plant is in the fall. But if you’re concerned that you’ve waited too long and want to be able to control the environment a bit more closely through that first year, camellias do very well in containers.
Don’t Plant Too Deeply
Camellias don’t grow excessively deep root systems, which is great when you want to transplant them. This is just something to keep in mind when planting or transplanting. Much like a citrus tree, you don’t need to bury the root ball deeply.
A good guideline when planting a camellia is to dig the hole only as deep, and twice as wide, as the pot or root ball. This width will give you some wiggle room to adjust the way your plant faces. It will also help keep it growing in the direction you prefer.
Provide Just Enough Water
Now that we have addressed how and where to plant a new fall blooming camellia, lets break it down into the needs of young and mature plants alike.
Camellias don’t need a ton of water. But when they are newly planted, they should be watered once or twice per week, depending on the rainfall and time of year. In the fall, you only need to water a newly planted shrubs once every week or two. If planting in the spring, once a week is a better rule.
Mature camellias need very little additional watering. Except in times of very scarce rainfall, you shouldn’t need to water a camellia once it reaches 4 years old. Don’t overwater, which is a common mistake that can cause other problems.
When blooming mature plants need about an inch of water per week. If that’s not coming in the way of rainfall, give them a good watering once a week. If you’re getting regular rainfall, leave them to their business, they will get by just fine.
Don’t Skip on Deadheading
Like most flowering plants, camellias benefit from deadheading. Deadheading helps them to channel nutrients into the flowers that have yet to bloom by pruning off the spent blooms. Many varieties of camellia form more than one bud per branch.
Deadheading removes the spent flowers so that the surrounding buds get more exposure and nutrients, and are more likely to bloom.
Some varieties will drop their own spent blooms. Many single petal form varieties fall into this category. This will be apparent early on, as the first blooms to fade will naturally fall off. This habit can be quite lovely, as the petals form a blanket of color on the ground beneath the plant.
For varieties that don’t drop their petals, a gentle hand is best for deadheading. Rather than pruning off the spent blooms with a tool, this is best done gently, and by hand.
Very carefully twist the spent bloom until it comes loose. Don’t pull too hard as this can damage the tender new growth, and any buds that are tucked behind the spent flowers.
Skip the Fertilizer
Camellias only need to be fertilized 2-3 times per year. The first time should be in the spring, to encourage new buds to form. Then again in early summer to support new growth. A third application can be given in late summer or very early fall but try to limit that event unless your plant looks like it needs the boost.
Fertilizing in the fall can cause new growth which is more tender and susceptible to frost. Camellias are fairly low-maintenance plants if they have the right soil, water, and light in their environment.
Camellias will bloom with no fertilizing at all. But a little goes a long way in increasing the number and vibrancy of the flowers produced. Timed correctly, fertilizing is helpful to their flower production, but poor timing can lead to new growth damage.
Apply Mulch in the Fall
Early fall is a great time to apply mulch around your camellias. Recall that camellias like an acidic environment, to help them absorb the magnesium and iron they need. Adding organic material around the base of the plant will help to increase the acidity of the soil as it breaks down over time.
I live in under an oak canopy, and when the oaks start to lose their leaves, rather than bagging them up, we rake them up around the base of our acid-loving plants.
If you don’t have deciduous trees to provide free mulch, compost or pine bark mulch are great, as well. This protects the roots of the plant. It also helps provide the soil a little extra acidic boost that camellias crave.
Skip the Pruning
Apart from deadheading, camellias should never be pruned in the fall. If you have performed a hard pruning in the spring to drastically reshape your camellia, you should thin out new growth at the end of the summer growth season.
This involves cutting away come of the growth near the trunk, to make space for air circulation and light to reach the interior of the plant, which helps protect against pests and diseases.
For camellias that you expect to bloom the following year, the best time to prune is right after they finish blooming. This will allow maximum time for bud development. If you prune in the fall, you will be pruning off those buds.
Treat Pest Problems Early
Summer is the time for insects to move in and damage that tender new growth. In general, if you see the new growth shriveling or bearing the markings of various pests, it’s good to eradicate them as soon as possible to mitigate the damage.
Sometimes the summer flies by and we don’t notice what’s going on with our camellias until we start looking for blooms. For winter bloomers, the insects are typically gone from the temperature change by the time the buds mature. This isn’t the case with fall bloomers.
Inspect your plant for symptoms of insect infestation. Scale leaves a white, powdery residue on leaves. Aphids are visible, the new growth will be shriveled, and they leave a moldy substance behind. Spider mites leave bronze/grey discoloration on the top of mature leaves.
If you can get pests in hand before the buds mature, you have a better chance of saving the flowers from being drained of nutrients by these unwelcome visitors. Neem oil works great in treating most infestations. A solution of dish soap and water sprayed on the leaves is another non-toxic way to treat for insects.
These solutions require multiple applications to eradicate the pests entirely. Commercial insecticides work faster, but they also put pollinating insects at risk. Apply all of these in the evening to mitigate harm to good insects.
Observation and a very small amount of maintenance will keep your sasanquas covered in flowers throughout the fall and into the winter. These beautiful plants provide an exceptional payoff in the way of blooms. Especially for the amount of time and effort they need to keep them looking their best.
When planted in the right conditions, and given a little bit of attention, camellias will thrive and produce those gorgeous blooms for decades to come. I wish you an Autumn full of flowers!