This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
I have had under my charge for twelve months a number of sickly Camellias about 3 feet high, which drop their buds as they are about to expand. They have never been too dry since I have had them. Water was applied at a temperature of 60° during last winter, with a little weak manure-water in the spring, but there was no appearance of any improvement. I am now getting some fresh compost into the yard, not having had any before which was suitable for repotting; indeed, they did not appear to be in want of it. Can you or any of your correspondents recommend any system of culture that would render such plants again worth growing? They are kept in a vinery from March 1st to the end of June, when they are placed outside until the end of September. - A. B., Strath Tat. [We sent your letter to Mr Pearson, of Chilwell, an able cultivator of Camellias who kindly replies as follows: - ] "If I had a lot of Camellias in the state described by your correspondent, I would get some nice turf from a good pasture, cut as thin as if it were intended to be laid down for a grass plat. I would cut such turf up by chopping it in pieces as small as nuts with a spade, and use it without any admixture, and quite fresh - unless it were from a clay or strong loam.
In this case the chopped turf should be shook in a riddle to get rid of some of the soil, and the grass and grass roots mixed with as much fine white sand as will make it a sandy turf. I would then at once shake each plant free from soil, and wash its roots, removing with a knife any that were dead, and repot them in the fresh turf, in clean pots no larger in size than would comfortably contain the roots. As these unhealthy plants will require stimulating to make fresh roots, they should be kept in a warm greenhouse, not a stove, and be moistened every day with a syringe till they have made fresh roots and shoots; after which they ought to be kept in a cool house always, and never receive more heat than is necessary to prevent their roots being frozen. Of all the plants grown in our houses, none are so miserably managed as Camellias. Where, in the neighbourhood of London, can a collection of well-grown plants be seen? A plant as hardy as a Laurel, or nearly so, is forced to death at one time of the year, and exposed to every change of temperature at another. It is generally potted in a mixture of loam and peat - one an acid soil, the other an alkaline one, which must in time produce a sour mixture.
Forced in spring, dry or deluged by rain, as it may happen, in summer, exposed to the heavy dews and rains of autumn, and then treated to the dry and perhaps hot atmosphere of a vinery, is it any wonder the poor plants look miserable] Pot in sandy fresh turf; never give heat more than is required to keep out frost; keep them, if possible, in the house all the year, and if not possible, have a roof of some kind over them, to preserve them from heavy rains. When they require potting, let it be done immediately they are out of bloom. When they require watering, be sure that every particle of soil is soaked. Keep the foliage as clean as a well-washed face, and you will have no trouble to keep Camellias from dropping their buds. - J. B. Pearson, Gardeners' Chronicle".
In the February number of the 'Gardener' there is, at page 91, advice on Camellia culture. Mine, unfortunately, were potted in a mixture of loam and peat, with the usual results. Hardly has one tree kept its buds. The advice given by Mr Pearson is, "When they require potting (which of course mine do), to get rid of the peat, let it be done immediately they are out of bloom." Would you have the goodness to let me know what I am to do, as my trees will not have any bloom 1 H. W., Norwood.
[We submitted our correspondent's letter to a cultivator on whose opinion we could rely, and he has written as follows: " The plants may now be turned out of the pots, the soil shaken from the roots, and be repotted in a rich loam, and then plunged in a gentle bottom-heat in a close and moist house where there is not very much top-heat, until they have made their growth; then gradually harden the plants off, and keep them well supplied with water during the summer. I think the buds drop as much from an insufficient supply of moisture as from any other cause." A few days ago we looked into the greenhouse of an amateur cultivator of plants residing in the neighbourhood of London, and saw there some small plants of Camellias having a fine bud at the termination of each shoot. In the house there were Cinerarias, Cyclamens, Primulas, etc, in flower, besides Pelargoniums, Fuchsias, etc. Everything in the house had a peculiarly fresh and healthy appearance; and this was attributed by our host to the fact, that he gives the house a gentle syringing some three or four times daily, not sparing any of the plants, and a slight heat is kept on at the pipes in dull weather. As a matter of course, in severe weather the syringing is withheld.
The theory in regard to Camellia buds dropping held by this gentleman was, that the foliage should be kept frequently moistened, and that a moist atmosphere is essential to the wellbeing of the Camellia. With such constant syringing but little root-watering is required, and then only just enough to moisten the balls - they are not thoroughly saturated with water. - Eds].
In giving a reply to a correspondent under this heading, in page 143 of our March number, we alluded to the condition of some Camellias We had seen "in the greenhouse of an amateur cultivator of plants in the neighbourhood of London." This gentleman, who does not desire that his name should be given, has written to us relative to his mode of managing his Camellias, and we think what he has stated worthy of being published. He writes: - " I see in the 'Gardener ' you have spoken of my success in the culture of the Camellia, but as what you there state is only half the secret, I will tell you also the remainder. It must be obvious to all who ever potted a Camellia, that it is not a plant requiring a large amount of nutritious matter at the root, as in nine cases out of ten it is apt to get quite soddened at the lower portion of the ball of earth; or, in other words, the plant has had given to it more than it is able to digest, for this is really what it amounts to. If a Fuchsia were potted in a similar way, the whole of the under portion of the soil would become a mass of roots, and evidently thoroughly digest the soil, if such a term may be used.
The Camellia has, comparatively, very few roots, and they never attain any great length, though they delight in getting into the drainage below, thus showing that it prefers a loose open soil to grow in, otherwise the roots would remain in the soil above. The fact is, the roots are of such a nature that they were not formed to penetrate a soddened mass of earth, and, indeed, are not capable of doing so.
The soil best suited to the Camellia is a peaty loam, or a loamy peat, whichever you please - the former such as is obtained from Epping Forest; the latter from some place near Twickenham. The turf, or peat, should be cut 3 inches in thickness, and when cut should, as soon as possible, be subjected to a partial charring, as recommended for the vine-border. The turf should not be broken small, but be used in as large pieces as possible. If old peat or loam is used, it should be kept open by means of small pieces of charcoal, and the same should be used as drainage, which will tend to give the beautiful dark foliage so much and deservedly admired. My house is not suitable for the Camellia. A house most advantageous to the growth of this plant is one facing north, as the glowing sun is, of all things, most injurious, especially when the new wood is forming, causing blistering, etc. The system adopted by the Italians is the most sensible. They grow in pits facing north; put the pots in a broad bottom, and fill up around the pots nearly to the top with some light material, such as cocoa-nut fibre, etc, and only water overhead occasionally.
I could write much more, but have said enough to show the principle of growing Camellias".