Early and white, scented and bright; January camellias like Brushfield’s Yellow make a spring garden, says Peter Dowdall.
When we think of camellias we think spring flowering but actually this is a genus which can offer colour from October through to June depending on the species. The camellia sasanqua types will bloom in the late autumn with some of the blooms being sweetly, if softly, scented and many of the camellia japonica and williamsii varieties flowering from late spring into early summer.
For me, January is the month of the yellow camellias. Now let's be straight about things: Jury’s Yellow and Brushfield’s Yellow are white. If you are expecting yellow in the same way that daffodils are yellow then prepare to be disappointed but believe me the only let down with these varieties is the name. As stately evergreen shrubs that produce masses of white flowers with a slightly off white centre these plants have none to equal them.
To the uninitiated, camellias may sound like a difficult plant and I often hear people refer to them as being a lot of work.
They’re neither and when you think of the display that they give, then no garden should be without one. They like a soil which is neutral to acidic with good humus content and decaying leaf matter.
When the soil pH is wrong this will normally manifest itself in a yellowing of the leaves, this is caused by iron being unavailable to the plant and the simple remedy is to apply iron in a form which is available to the plant’s roots, such as chelated or sequestered iron.
There are many such iron products and acid plant feeds available and all will do more or less the same job. Depending on which product you use, you will need to feed your camellia with this a number of times during the growing season. If you can collect pine needles from another part of your garden or some other garden then these too are a great addition to reduce the pH of the soil around the base of a camellia. The only other thing to remember from a fertilising aspect is potassium.
All plants need good levels of this to produce buds and thus flowers, and remembering that camellias will produce their buds the previous autumn, then that is the time to apply either Sulphate of Potash or tomato food or a similar high potassium product. Over the last few years I have discovered Liquid Gold, which is a locally produced, worm tea, the liquid of which is organic and probiotic which means it stimulates the beneficial microbes and micro organisms already n the soil, and I have found it an excellent plant feed to promote flower buds on nearly all plants.
The white flowering varieties tend to flower earlier than the others and this makes them more prone to frost damage. It is not unusual to wake up one morning after a particularly cold night and see a shrub which yesterday was laden down with the purest of white flowers now looking like a shower of rust fell upon it.
To prevent this damage I suggest you cover the plant with Horticultural fleece during particularly cold nights. Indeed for any camellia I would suggest doing this, as even if it is not an early flowering variety, the frost can damage the buds leading to either the buds dropping before they open, or opening with rust coloured petals.
One of the first things I ever learned about positioning any plant was that you should not plant camellias where they will face the early morning sun therefore do not position them facing east or south.
This is because during the very cold mornings the sun will burn the frost off the leaves, buds and flowers and the plant will appear scorched. In 2013, I saw similar scorched leaves but caused by the intensity of the summer sun for a change. We’re not used to seeing sun scorch being a plant problem in this part of the world but bearing it in mind, do try and plant your camellia somewhere semi-shaded and ideally, facing west.
I know later in the season I will be raving about the aristocrats of the spring garden, camellias, rhododendrons, magnolias at al, but let us not forget the stunning Brushfield’s Yellow that does so much to lift the gloom during this month of January.#
SEEDS UNDER COVER
Now is the time to start sowing seeds of summer flowering annuals indoors, ideal if you have a glasshouse or polytunnel but if not, even the smallest of kitchen windowsills can fit a seed tray, so it’s time to be productive. There are dozens of varieties of seed available in your local garden centre and online.
For a few euro you will get as many as a few hundred seeds depending on the variety.
Most seeds will germinate quite quickly and easily at this time of the year just give them some heat and moisture and some oxygen, simple as that. After a few weeks you will be pricking them off and before you know it we will be facing once more into a glorious Irish summer.
So prepare now and have masses of summer flowers ready for your garden at a fraction of the cost of buying ready grown bedding plants in a few months time.
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