Camellias for Mothers’ Day

Despite the date moving, it being tied to Easter, Mothers’ Day always seems like the start of spring. Traditionally linked with picking bunches of primroses and daffodils, it is inextricably linked with flowers.

In the 70s, when I worked at Nag’s Hall, the ubiquitous pot chrysanth was a popular gift choice and cinerarias were cheap and cheerful, though not easy to keep once bought. Today these are replaced by Senetti, which are perfect patio plants for late spring colour. But moth orchids, so common today, were never seen; the only orchid you would find would be cymbidiums, either as plants or as single, cut blooms in clear-faced boxes. The other plant that dominated the flowering pot plants, the rest of the year as well as in spring, was the African violet (saintpaulia). These were so popular that every house had one, often covered in dust and talcum powder in the bathroom. They were so popular that I even built a special growing cabinet for them. But where are they now? When was the last time you bought one? Have you seen one in a friend’s house (pre-lockdown of course)?

While primroses make an inexpensive gift, not everyone likes the responsibility of caring for houseplants and a long-lived outdoor plant makes a better gift. But then there is the worry of whether they have room for a shrub or tree in the garden. This is where camellias come to the rescue, making a really thoughtful and beautiful gift.

Camellias are evergreen shrubs with beautiful, early flowers in shades of pink, red and white or cream. Their lustrous leaves look lovely all year and they are relatively slow growing in most cases. They are lime-haters so will not grow on chalky and alkaline soils which means that many people grow them in pots. Pot cultivation is a good choice where the soil is not right for them but it also suits them quite well, as long as you follow a few basic rules.

Top tips for growing camellias in pots

Plant into straight-sided pots – when you plant your camellia in a larger pot, choose one that is 10cm (4in) wider than the original and has straight sides so you can repot it again in two years.

Use ericaceous compost – or lime-free John Innes compost

Keep the camellia watered at all times. The flower buds form in August and if the plant is allowed to dry out at any time, but especially then, there will be no flowers the next spring.

And again – keep it moist at all times. Camellias have thick leaves and do not wilt when dry – but a month after the plant has dried out the leaves will turn yellow or brown and it is too late to save the plant then.

Avoid baking hot spots – camellias can tolerate shade and will be deep green then but may not flower freely. A sunny spot encourages flowering but the leaves may go yellow. So try to find a spot in part shade or light shade. Because it is in a pot you can move it to a sunny spot from autumn to spring, when the sun is less strong, and moved to shade in summer – a perfect combination.

Avoid east-facing positions – The biggest threat to the blooms themselves is frost. Tight buds are not affected by open flowers can be ruined by a hard frost. Rapid thawing causes the worst damage so avoid east-facing spots. Camellias are ideal for a patio because these areas are often sheltered by buildings and keep hard frost away, allowing the flowers to open to perfection. On still, cold nights you can throw a sheet over the plants overnight to protect the flowers.

Feed your plants – apply a controlled-release fertiliser every spring. You can buy these with an ericaceous formula.

You can prune camellias – the best way is to nip off the top buds on the shoots as they start to sprout – this keeps plants compact. If plants get overgrown you can prune lightly in spring, after flowering, but flowering may be delayed a year.

Weekly reminders

Mow the lawn for the first time of the year – but raise the height of cut to avoid scalping the grass. Soon after, give a feed and a mosskiller if necessary.

Sow tomatoes indoors, along with summer cabbages, calabrese and onions.

Plant onion sets outside.

Plant potatoes in bags for an early crop and outdoors in raised beds.

Finish the rose pruning and cut back grasses nd herbaceous plants.

Complete planting all bare-root plants including hedges, fruit trees and fruit bushes.

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