Where and How We Planted The Gang of Eight
Before we brought our Gang home from the Virginia Camellia Society sale (see Camellias in our Garden), enthusiastic Society members told us what camellias liked. Perfect drainage. Good friable soil on the acid side. Mulch. Conscientious watering during the first year. Shelter from winds and protection from sun.
Location Location Location
Tall pines form a benign upper story for camellias. Their thinly clad branches filter sunlight, cast dappled shade.
Perfect for Japonicas because their leaves turn yellow in full sun, an ugly distraction to fresh spring blooms.
Sasanquas are less finicky. They can tolerate a healthy dose of sunlight and some bloom best in good sun.
The roots of pine trees are kind to camellias. They go deep, so they do not compete with camellias’ surface roots. Planting camellias under deciduous trees with wide-ranging roots can slow their growth and reduce bloom. Leaves crowded on their branches cast deep shade and roots close to the surface seem to home in on soil amended for planting. Camellias must compete with a mat of roots that dries the soil at the surface.
Our first camellias, our Gang of Eight, had it all. A fine western exposure sheltered from hot noonday sunlight by a mix of pines and hardwoods.
The north side of a house is fine, too, as long as some sunlight slips in and the exhaust from a heat exchanger is not blowing a desert song.
Eastern exposures are toughest in winter unless they are protected by pines. After a night of freezes, that big ball of fire blasts the leaves before they can recover from the cold, turns them brown. It can take a season to repair the damage.
We planted our Gang of Eight in fall, around October. It’s the best season for planting in our southern garden because soil is not yet soggy from winter rains.
Plants have a good long time to settle in and grow roots during cool seasons before the heat of summer. In northern climates, where summers are not as outrageous, spring planting is best.
Soil and Drainage
Our woodland garden gave freely of shade and shelter. But soil and drainage? The plants would either drown or rot if we dug holes in our clay soil.
The verdict: No holes. A decision that cheered Master-Digger Master-Builder Bob to no end.
Long before raised beds became popular in gardens, we would create a raised bed for planting — out of necessity, not creativity. Instead of digging, we piled several inches of coarse potting soil–mostly composted pine bark, with some sand and vermiculite–on top of the clay. Uncomposted pine bark will rob your plants of nitrogen as it decomposes.
Peat moss can be another villain in a planting bed. It is suspected of suffocating plant roots and causing root rot when it decomposes.
Into this organic mixture, we incorporated broken-up clumps of clay, a real-soil addition to our mixture.
We waited a few days before planting to let the soil mixture settle. New plants would be less likely to sink below soil level into soup bowls that would collect rainfall and drown roots.
Gardener’s Aside: If we were planting a camellia, or any other plant, directly in the ground, we would dig a wide shallow hole and backfill it with a combination of soil and compost.
Planting advice now is to add about 20 per cent organic mixture to 80 per cent soil by volume. (About 2 inches in an eight inch planting hole.) We probably add more like half and half because our soil is the kind of clay you can make ceramic pots from.
The plant would then be set directly in the bottom of the hole, with no loose soil underneath that would compress. If the plant sinks below ground level, it become a target for root rot in soil that is not perfectly drained.
Fortunately, neighbors in the bed, a native male holly with a handsome cone shape and large loblolly pine, seemed to relish the garnish and did not chafe at the unexpected rise in soil level.
Their roots moderated moisture in the soil after heavy rains, but we would not know how important that was to our Gang of Eight until several years later.
Soil and pH
Tests from the NC state agriculture department told us our soil was neutral, a surprise because we had so many pine trees on the property. (We quickly learned to take nothing about our soil for granted.)
Since camellias like a fairly acid soil—5.5 to 6.5 pH–we could have added sulfur. We did not because we had bought unlimed, naturally acidic potting soil directly from a nearby manufacturer. We also counted on gradual decomposition of mulch to balance soil acidity.
Fortunately, there was no masonry or concrete near our new bed that could leach lime into it. Yellow leaves would mean we’d have to test our soil every couple of years and amend soil as advised.
One product, aluminum sulphate, is often added to soil around hydrangeas to lower pH enough to promote blue blooms. It is a weak substitute for pure sulfur, and large quantities are needed to achieve results.
We hesitate to broadcast aluminum around our plants or add it to our soil as we do not know what the cumulative effects of aluminum are.
Before we did any planting, we inverted the pots and inspected root balls.
The Society purchases camellias from a reputable nursery. The plants were all well grown, with healthy roots out to the edge of the root ball.
They were not pot bound. There would be no tugging and tearing at roots welded into a brick before planting.
Healthy roots are critical for long-term success. Inspecting them prior to purchase gives you a sense of root quality.
You can do this yourself or ask the nurseryman to do it for you. Bob does this faithfully. I do not because I am usually so enamored of a plant I want to buy that I do not want any bad news.
So I bury my head in the sand and then I am sorry. Pot-bound plants are severely handicapped.
Survival is compromised. Fully 80 percent of roots are already dead. Those still alive are trapped in the center of the pot.
Treatment calls for a big dose of tough love.
Many times I’ve had to cut into root balls with a sharp knife and tear apart roots and drastically prune dark dead roots so space opens up for new roots to emerge. These are often the plant’s only hope of survival.
Bob and I particularly check for older, woody twisted or curling roots. These are summarily clipped unless they can be straightened (usually not).
If left unchecked, such ill-grown roots, unseen, can prevent healthy roots from spreading naturally.
In severe cases, the plant either dies or limps along for years, a puzzle in the garden because there seems to be no reason for its failure to thrive. Sadly, years of great expectations are wasted.
When roots are excised so dramatically, the top of the plant should be pruned back to balance for losses below.
After drastic surgery, a plant should not go directly in the ground, though sometimes we’ve planted torn-apart plants and hoped.
Usually, we pot the plant in potting soil (not garden dirt) and keep it in a cool, shady sick bay until we see strong, healthy growth — and nice roots.
Finally, We Plant
Our plants were not potbound. We only had to tease the roots gently with our fingers to loosen the root ball. Teasing helps pull young, wayward roots to vertical. It also stimulates root growth.
Since we were planting our camellias in a raised bed which had been allowed to settle, planting was easy. We nestled the plants about six to eight feet apart, I think, in the soft mixture.
They looked lost, set so far apart, so I suspect we may have shaved a few inches off the gaps.
We firmed them, watered them well, and mulched them with about three inches of pine bark. We would use a pine bark mulch for a few years. Its slow decomposition would continue to create a woodland soil that camellias like so much. Later, pine needles that fell naturally on the bed,took the place of bark mulch.
We did not fertilize our Gang of Eight. That would come in spring. Time release fertilizer had been incorporated into the root balls of our Eight, and that was enough for now.
Gardener’s Aside: Mixing fertilizer in soil before planting can burn roots. See Pruning and Fertilizing our Camellias.)
A low hedge of dwarf pittosporum fronted the camellias as the native male holly stood sentinel, and when the sun shone on these plants, their leaves glowed, handsome, rich and green.
And we were proud of our work. We thought it would be a forever planting, but great changes were to come to our garden, and these camellias would come to resent those changes.