Coping: New Gardens, New Challenges, New Hopes
No point looking back. We put our hurricane losses in a burn pile and began our hunt for new camellias, buying some, air layering others from gardens. We were on a quest.
No more losses to root rot, though (see Collateral Damage). We scouted our garden for the highest and driest habitats, mostly untouched mixed woodlands near our property boundaries.
One of these was a designated holding cell for displaced azaleas. Why not leave the azaleas there, create a new bed and add camellias to the mix?
New camellias found themselves buddying up with old azaleas.
We didn’t need to raise soil levels in these high-and-dry plots.
We simply dug wide shallow holes for each plant and backfilled with a combination of clay and compost.
Not much chance for root rot here. We celebrated.
Maybe a little too soon. . .
Killing our Camellias with Kindness?
In fact, we had quite the opposite problem. Large deciduous trees were sucking water from the soil and spreading their fibrous roots out to ten, fifteen, maybe twenty feet or more.
Nice crumbly soil we created for fledgling plants became a free-for-all zone for opportunistic tree roots that muscled their way in to create a solid mat.
They were thugs! The little plants were foundering.
Truth is, in a battle between trees and shrubs, trees always win. Not this time! Nosiree! Not with us as allies. We could stand up to trees (even if we weren’t sure quite what we should do except get out of their way when they were falling).
Once in a while we chopped through the mat and loosened the soil, but were we chopping the surface roots of these year-old air layers and sending them two steps backward?
True gardeners, insane, we remained wedded to our plans. It’s worth noting that of all trees, mature oaks require less water than do maple and poplar. We had no mature oaks but we had lots of maple, poplar, sweet gum and pine.
But we would prevail against these thirsty trees (that we’d never cut down). We soldiered on, at times with more pluck than brains.
Regular mulching seemed to help, a mix of ground pine straw and leaves supplied by our trusty chipper-shredder.
Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, we carted away leaves to be ground. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, we carted the ground leaves back to be laid carefully around each plant.
What kind of dumb work was this?
One year we got savvy. Let’s skip the grinding, we said.
We tossed mounds, no, piles, great piles of unshredded leaves directly onto the beds, smoothing them with rakes. They would settle with time. We even got our neighbor to give us some (not that she was unwilling).
Fall clean-up became child’s play. The cozy leaf blanket smothered any dreams future weeds might have of joining our camellias.
Such an easy way of keeping the soil cool, too, and preventing heavy rainfalls from saturating the ground. We also believe the leaves help to curtail disease.
Here’s the best part. Leaves decompose quickly into compost.
You can’t see it, but deep underneath, leaves are being eaten by tiny critters and crumbling and turning into soil.
Trees are finally giving back some of what they steal from our camellias.
We were taking a chance. Such deep layers of leaves could have smothered their roots, cut off their supply of air.
Camellia roots need air, and they often grow at the surface to get it.
That’s why soil for camellias must be porous and mulch must not be piled on. And here we were piling on the leaves.
So, were we killing our camellias with kindness? Apparently not. No plants seemed stressed.
Probably because dead leaves and pine needles are lightweight compared to bark mulch. They are not tightly packed by gravity and rain.
You can easily dig through them, brush them aside. Air can still penetrate. Despite our autumn exuberance, the mantle never gets any thicker. Must be all that crumbling underneath.
It was hard to do a reliable investigation. When we pushed back the leaves, there were so many roots we had no way of knowing whether camellia roots were willing, or unwilling, bedfellows. Conclusive evidence? None. But the plants kept inching upward.
Managing the Beds
The large beds were easy to manage. Fertilizing and watering became efficient.
Faithfully, each spring Bob puts a cup or so of high nitrogen slow-release fertilizer (19-6-12) around each camellia on top of the leaf mulch.
This formula is similar to that used on camellias in the Norfolk Botanic Garden.
We water as needed, though less often than you would expect.
We installed the Mister Landscaper watering system from Lowes. It’s a do-it-yourself system that needs no tools for installation. Each camellia has its own head on a tube coming from a main hose.
You have a choice of heads, and if you make a mistake or change your mind or a squirrel chews a tube, fixes are easy.
A check-up in spring can turn up clogged heads, but a puff of air from somebody’s cheeks usually gets the water flowing again. If not, heads are cheap enough to replace.
When it is especially droughty, we occasionally water with an overhead sprinkler.
Wet foliage can be an invitation to disease, but our camellias have coped so often with heavy dews and rainy nights that a sputter from a sprinkler is not going to put them into sickbay.
We tell them to pretend that overhead sprinkling is part of nature.
The good news. Rarely, if ever, do we water large, established camellias.
If you can be patient and let camellias settle in and age, they are truly drought tolerant and delightfully resistant to insects and diseases. They become old friends in the garden.
Growing? Or Thinking About Growing
But it is a test of patience and optimism.
Even in ideal conditions, camellias seem to spend a lot of time thinking about growing after they are planted.
Our small, year-old air layers competing with trees in their prime needed a good seven to ten years before they achieved stature and bulk and begin to shine.
A truce of sorts between camellias and big trees had apparently been negotiated. (We were not privy to the plant talk. We could only watch from above.) Their blooms are brightening winter days for us and our neighbors.
Occasionally, a plant has up and died. A couple have been eaten down by deer.
Others looked so sad we had to dig them and confine them to sick bay for rehab. Sometimes it took a couple of years before they recovered and could be replanted.
Sometimes they never recovered. But that’s just part of growing camellias in a woodland.
It has been a long slow time, almost a decade, since we planted the woodland camellias. We are finally seeing the fruits of our labors. They are handsome plants with handsome blooms. Has the work been worth it? Yes. The future is an even longer time.