HE­LEN YEMM THORNY PROB­LEMS

This week: buds of hope for an all-fo­liage camel­lia, how to en­cour­age a shapely shrub and the ba­sic facts about bi­en­ni­als

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - GARDENING -

I have a camel­lia bush that looks healthy but has not flow­ered once in the 10 years that I have lived here. The soil is clay-based. I should dearly love to see it flower – what can I do to en­cour­age it?

J MCLAREN – VIA EMAIL

The healthy fo­liage is en­cour­ag­ing. My first thought is that you may have been “tidy­ing it up” in spring with se­ca­teurs to keep it com­pact, and in­ad­ver­tently pruned off the shoot tips where flower buds should form.

My sec­ond thought in­volves wa­ter­ing: if your camel­lia is over­shad­owed by ev­er­green trees or by de­cid­u­ous trees with low, thick canopies, it will have been short of wa­ter dur­ing Au­gust, a cru­cial time for camel­lias to start to form buds.

My third thought is about feed­ing (each spring, with some­thing suit­able for acid soil-lov­ing plants) and mulching (with leaf mould or er­i­ca­ceous com­post). Both could make a dif­fer­ence and if you have done nei­ther each year, this could be why your camel­lia is sulk­ing. My fi­nal (rather de­press­ing) thought in­volves thiev­ing squir­rels, which can rapidly dev­as­tate bud­ding camel­lias.

In truth, there is lit­tle you can do about next spring. If there are no vis­i­ble flower buds now, there won’t be any flow­ers. But per­haps, based on the above, next year you might make a dif­fer­ence. Alas, no one seems to have an an­swer to the prob­lem of thiev­ing squir­rels.

Emails from about “fail­ing” with bi­en­nial hon­esty grown from seed, and from

“con­fused” about a rash of nigella seedlings as well as her white fox­gloves have stirred me to write a

Marsh Nor­man McKeavney Lucy TIP OF THE WEEK

lit­tle about bi­en­ni­als. True bi­en­ni­als ger­mi­nate in spring and grow into leafy plants in year one. They flower in year two, then set seed and die.

Nor­man’s hon­esty is a true bi­en­nial: self-seeded bi­en­ni­als tend to suf­fer from over­crowd­ing and should be thinned out and re­lo­cated at the end of their first year. Lucy can ex­pect many of her cur­rently 3in (7.5cm) nigella seedlings to sur­vive and make sub­stan­tial plants next year – bet­ter than any sown next spring. Nigella is a hardy an­nual, not a true bi­en­nial, while her white fox­glove that “seems to be peren­nial”, is just a bi­en­nial that may be go­ing the ex­tra mile, but won’t be as ro­bust as it was last sum­mer.

Bi­en­ni­als are a con­tra­dic­tory bunch: for ex­am­ple, hol­ly­hocks are bi­en­nial and don’t flower in their first

year, but are sold as “short-lived peren­ni­als” and dis­ap­point­ingly get rust, go down­hill af­ter year three and are not worth both­er­ing with af­ter that. Whereas if you cut back your best “bi­en­nial” wall­flow­ers smartly as soon as they fin­ish flow­er­ing, they will grow into shrubby lit­tle things that will flower well, and early, for a sec­ond year and even be­yond.

BERRY UPA se­lec­tive prun­ing of older stems keeps pheas­ant berry per­form­ing well

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