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
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