Two of Columbia’s most renowned gardeners are moving into apartment-styled condominiums. For one of these accomplished women, she will still have plants on her country property where she can keep her skills honed. The other has chosen to live in a downtown semi-high rise. No doubt, containers for balconies will be on both their shopping lists. My dream is a patio home — one that has nothing on it that needs painting. My 2½ acres in St. Matthews have long been beyond my ability to keep up in any passable fashion, and the house, built about 1890, has, since the removal of lead from paint, been peeling like my blonde siblings and I would after the first day at our annual beach trips. Dr. Phillip Fairey, the father of the late Dr. Phillip Fairey of Columbia, built the house we live in. I can only imagine the beauty of the house and grounds during his tenure.
Today, we enjoy the legacy of pecan trees and camellias he planted. A huge deodar cedar dominated the front yard when we moved in; the trunk had been cut back at some early point in its development and it had numerous low growing, almost horizontal side branches. Children from several generations have told me about playing in that tree, as mine did, until it finally succumbed to the heat of South Carolina summers, shortening what would be a much longer life in its native environs of the Himalayas.
Since we moved in 33 years ago, I’ve raised three children and numerous dogs and cats and planted far more trees and shrubs than I can care for. I have never, until now, had time to prune any of the centenarian or only decades old camellias or sasanquas. (Camellia is the genus for several species of the Asian-origin evergreen flowering shrubs we grow here. Camellia sasanquas are typically the earliest bloomers, followed by the often-larger flowered Camellia japonicas. Camellia reticulata, which easily reaches 50 feet in height, is less frequently sold but has the perhaps the showiest flowers of all; Camellia sinensis is the source of tea.)
March is a good time for pruning, as late winter is the recommended time to start that annual chore for woody plants. Many types of pruning stimulate new growth. If you prune too early and new growth appears, it could be killed by late frosts. But I feel perfectly confident pruning my camellias earlier as I am mostly making thinning cuts which do not promote new growth, and camellias seem to wait until after flowering to put on new leaves.
Some people say, “Oh, my goodness, don’t prune until after they flower — you’re cutting off those blossoms.” To which I say, “Have you looked at the scores of buds that are on these shrubs?” There will be no dearth of blooms, and you’ll be able to see them more distinctly without the previously obscuring foliage.
Manning, South Carolina, which, according to Walter Edgar’s South Carolina Encyclopedia, has the well-deserved tag line “famous for its beauty and hospitality,” is the home of the hospitable and lovely camellia specialist Marie Land. Although we often attribute to her the description of a well-pruned camellia as being open enough to pitch a cat through, Marie credits it to one of her mentors. (No doubt, the tossed cat was one that would bite your ankle for no reason.) During this time of being at home, she too has been working away at her camellias and reading a collection of American Camellia Society yearbooks. Her biggest takeaway is that most people think of camellias as shrubs when actually almost all of them want to be small trees, and in their native situations, as well as when appropriately sited and cared for in South Carolina, they can live for centuries.
Although many sources do suggest pruning camellias after they finish blooming, Marie shared with me an article that states you can prune camellias almost any time except perhaps mid to late summer. The article she referenced from one of the yearbooks published in the 1950s also advises that camellias should be planted at least 10 feet on center. Since in these days of instant landscape gratification we tend to plant for a mature look immediately, learning proper pruning will keep your camellias at a manageable size with enough room for good health.
Let me add here that Marie’s talents with camellias extend to waxing the flowers, which lets you enjoy them for days and days. She once went to the set of “Making It Grow” to teach Rowland Alston that technique. You can find the video online by simply searching “YouTube waxing camellias scetv.”
We’ve all come to appreciate fresh air movement and sunshine as we make accommodations and wait for our world to return to being a safer home for its human inhabitants. Since camellias too are healthier with increased air flow and penetration of sunlight, experts recommend pruning them to an open center form with both lower and also smaller interior branches and twigs removed. Tea scale, those mostly sessile and armored insects that weaken our camellias as they feed on sap, proliferate in the shadier foliage found nearer the ground. I was looking at a camellia that’s next on my list to tackle, and, lo and behold, those areas had far more scale than the leaves higher up.
Spraying horticultural oils or other topical approved insecticides is far more effective and easier if you have achieved an open framework for your camellias. You must spray the undersides of the leaves for control; the more open your plant, the better coverage you can achieve. Camellias and tea scale are analogous to teenagers and acne; some of mine have a struggle with it while other cultivars seem unaffected. But as I said above, a cursory check did show that the worst infestations all were lower in the plant, so I’m putting those armored scale insects on notice that they are about to be subjected to the cleansing power of sunlight and air movement.
Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Center factsheet 2012, “Armored Scale Insects & Control,” is practically an encyclopedic treatise on this subject. A healthy plant is the first line of defense. Horticultural oils, applied under the right conditions, are least toxic sprays; for more serious problems, synthetic pesticides are approved for tea scale control. My trees are far too tall for me to spray adequately. On the few camellias that have scale to an unacceptable degree, I am going to use a drench applied to the soil. The one that is labeled and most effective in controlling armored scale on camellias is dinotefuran, and you’ll need to go to a landscape supply store to find it. This product is one of the neonicotinoids, related to imidacloprid, which got undeserved bad press when a company sprayed it on a basswood tree in full flower. That action was completely inappropriate and actually a violation of federal law. The label instructions for use of pesticides are legally enforceable.
Although the fact sheet suggests a spring application, possibly followed by another in the fall, I am going to limit my drench solely to the spring. Not only are the crawlers, the young hatchling and mobile scales, active in the spring, but by fall the chemicals, which move systemically throughout the entire plant, will be present in a lower concentration. Many open-centered sasanquas and camellias, the ones with visible stamens and pistils, are heavily visited by insect pollinators as our summer flowers wind down. The European honeybee, not native to North America, actively feeds on the nectar and pollen that certain camellias produce throughout winter.
Unless you need to reduce the height of your camellias, you can make thinning cuts by completely removing a twig or branch at its base where it meets another branch. You want to remove inwardly growing branches and those that are going to rub against each other. Several of my camellias have some large branches that have grown together, but removing them would destroy the structures of the now small trees, so I’ll let them be. I am thinning up in the canopy as well, always trying to leave it more open. Plants that have gotten too tall will require heading cuts. To make these, you actually cut through one of the larger, taller branches, which will resprout. Then you will begin to make thinning cuts as it develops, always with the goal of encouraging outward growth and thinning the interior. Please read Clemson HGIC factsheet 1053, Pruning Shrubs, for detailed instructions on these different pruning cuts.
I fight cherry laurel, hackberry, volunteer magnolias, and other pest plants constantly, and my weapon of choice for years has been a Drexel Sawzall, followed by immediately painting the stump with full-strength glyphosate. Recently I’ve struggled mightily to change the battery; two of my three very heavy and annoying batteries died the last time I was working, which prompted a life-changing trip to Home Depot. Drexel obviously has done consumer research with women. My new saw is appreciably lighter, and the battery is a breeze to change. They now have carbide blades available and the process of switching them is also far simpler. Be sure you get blades that say “pruning” rather than “wood.” I make all large cuts now with this tool and use my well-sharpened Felco’s to trim away small twigs.
You must promise me if you are going to do serious pruning that you will wear safety glasses. Twigs often get caught, and as you pull one loose it can easily hit you in the face. I also know of three people who died from ladder falls. You must have someone hold the ladder the entire time you are using it, and I do not recommend going more than a few feet off the ground. Your safety is too important; hire experts to do things that are going to be a stretch. But you can certainly make good inroads into creating a healthier camellia.
One of the joys, as the gentleman in the article Marie Land shared with me suggested, was to cut long branches covered with flowers to bring into the house. Imagine the delight a neighbor without access to these magnificent winter blooming flowers would feel if you left a vase on her porch, rang the bell, and shared with her something that can’t be bought from any store and is a true gift from your heart.