Neal Weisenberger

A popular landscape plant that is starting to bloom now are camellias.

There are two common types of camellias. The most common camellia planted is the Japanese Camellia (Camellia japonica), which is also called the shade camellia or sometimes it is called a tea tree. Tea comes from a variety of camellia (camellia sinensis) leaves. The Japanese camellia is hardy to about 10 degrees and will survive most winters without any damage. They will also tolerate the heat of summer, but not the direct sunlight.

The second common type are Sasanqua or Sun camellias (camellia sasanqua). This type of camellia still needs protection from the sun, but it can take more sun and heat. It is a hardier, tougher type of camellia. Sun camellia is better suited for the Antelope Valley; however, the leaves and flowers are smaller and less showy. If you really want to plant a camellia then the Sun camellias are your best bet.

Camellias do not like the hot, dry, summer winds of the Antelope Valley or even our cold, dry east winds of winter. The key is camellias do not like dry air. This makes it difficult to find a location protected from the winds that has an abundance of shade. This would most likely be the east side of your home under the eves of your house. The shade of a patio or large evergreen trees will also work.

Deciduous trees can be a problem because they do not provide shade in the winter. Direct sun in the early morning is fine for Japanese camellias, but no direct sun by 9 to 10 a.m. in the summer.

The climate is not the major problem for camellias. The real problem is our soil. Camellias like moist, well-drained, acidic soil. Most of our native soils in the Antelope Valley meets the well-drained requirements. However, when homes are built in the Antelope Valley, the soil has been compacted to build the house. Thus, we do not have well-drained soil. Since the natural soil is well drained before compaction, rototill the area as deep as possible, this should break up the compaction and allow the soil to become well drained.

To help make the soil moist and well drained, you need to add organic matter, and since we are talking about camellias, we need to add a lot of organic matter. I like to rototill four to six inches of organic matter into the soil; more would be even better. This is your only chance to add a lot of organic matter to the soil, once the camellia is planted, you cannot rototill more material into the soil.

The last requirement of the soil is the most difficult — making the soil acidic. Adding organic matter to the soil will help make the soil more acidic. Most organic matter can make your soil more alkaline, especially wood or forest products and manures. Peat moss is the best product to make the soil more acidic. Adding wood ashes or bone meal is not a good idea for camellias because it will make the soil more alkaline. Adding soil sulfur to the soil is one of the best ways to make the soil more acidic.

Now that the soil has been amended to a moist, well-drained, acidic soil, you are ready to plant a camellia. Camellias are very shallow rooted plants, and may not be well rooted in the container that you bought the plant in. So carefully remove the camellia from the container. Plant the camellia at the same level that it was growing in the container. Camellias do not like to be planted too deep, or they will die.

Due to the dry heat in the high desert, camellias need to be mulched with three to four inches of mulch to keep the roots cool and moist. Since the roots are near the surface, you cannot cultivate or dig around the plants, you need to spray any weeds with an herbicide or carefully pull the weeds by hand.

This seems like a lot of work, and it is, but if you want camellias, it is what you need to do. There are some shortcuts. First, think about a raised planter. I built a raised planter at school and filled the planter with an organic planting mix and planted the camellias. Or even simpler, grow your camellias in red wood tubs or half oak barrels.

Best of all is to not plant camellias but to visit Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. This garden is known for its camellias and is currently open. You need to purchase your tickets online, but it is a great day trip.

Gardenias need to have the same air, water and soil requirements as camellias. They are just more sensitive to these requirements. Azaleas need even more acid soil and it is almost impossible to keep your soil acidic enough to keep your azaleas alive for very long.

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