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Prune your camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas with care

  • January 20, 2018
  • Jane Scurich
  • My fascination with camellias began at a young age. An aunt and uncle owned a camellia nursery in southern Alabama. Their property was ringed with massive japonicas. In early spring an amazing array of blooms in various colors and sizes filled their expansive garden. Large, level fields were filled year-round with upside down Mason jars, each fostering a hybrid.

    Fast forward quite a few years, and my passion for camellias continues. After moving to Mill Valley, my first major landscape purchase was a variety of both japonicas and the winter-blooming (and often fragrant) sasanquas. They are now almost 40 years old.

    I think of these large, glossy, evergreens as fairly attention-free and have done little to control their size and shape. Recently, I attended an excellent, informative seminar on camellia, rhododendron and azalea pruning presented by the Pruning Guild of the Marin Master Gardeners. It was both eye-opening and motivating.

    I learned that camellias respond rapidly to pruning. I was encouraged to look carefully along a branch to discover a multitude of latent buds just waiting to sprout. Sure enough, I came home and inspected my camellias closely. Clearly, there are growth opportunities along each branch.

    After the class I was able to recognize that some of my camellias have become leggy — stretching for light. Lower limbs are supporting fewer buds — no doubt also light deprived. And my espaliered sasanquas are desperately seeking some defined shaping.

    The instructor emphasized the four most important reasons for pruning: maintenance, shaping, reduction and rejuvenation.

    Pruning can take place at any time. To better enjoy flowers, plan to prune just after bloom season and before vigorous new growth has begun. For sasanquas, this will probably be January through March. Japonicas can bloom well into early summer, so wait until the majority of the buds have faded.

    Here are some basic pruning tips:

    • Gather the proper tools. You will need pruners, a pruning saw, a sharpener for the blades and possibly a ladder.

    • Remove the 4 Ds: dead, diseased, damaged and dysfunctional branches.

    • Consider the size and shape of your plant. Are there long branches with leaves only on the tip end? Is the plant growing too tall and obstructing your view? Is the base of the plant bare of branches? Have you noticed a significant decrease in blooms in recent years?

    • For long, leggy branches, cut back to the main trunk or prune to encourage leafing. Open up the inside of the plant for light and air circulation.

    • To control height, start with the tallest branch, follow it down to a lower lateral and cut 1/4 inch above the lateral. It may take several years to carefully reduce a very tall plant.

    • Remember to never remove more than a third of your plant at any one time. Your camellias will respond with fresh new growth. Major rejuvenation may require two to three years to develop the ideal size and shape. Flowering may be diminished during the rejuvenation phase.

    These same timing and techniques apply to rhododendrons and azaleas. Immediately after the class in May, I started working on a rather sad rhodie in my yard. It is small enough that I could sit beside it and carefully examine each branch, searching for the buds just under the surface. I made a few strategic cuts to encourage branching and have already been rewarded with significant new growth and a much more attractive plant.

    While you are studying your plants to make the perfect cuts, also take time to clean up fallen leaves and flowers to deter camellia petal blight, which is caused by a fungus. Do not add camellia debris to your compost. After pruning, add fresh mulch around your plant, keeping it 2 to 3 inches from the trunk. Apply a balanced fertilizer and look forward to enjoying a happier plant.

    If you are interested in additional pruning training, join UC Marin master gardener Rod Kerr for a free seminar in wisteria pruning at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Novato Library at 1720 Novato Blvd in Novato. Learn how to do structural pruning this winter to produce healthier wisteria vines with bountiful flowers in the spring.