‘Important rule’ when pruning camellias for ‘healthy blooms’

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For those who have already learned how to grow camellias and have one of these structural plants in their garden, they’ll know the value they bring. Being an evergreen, they’ll provide glossy foliage all year long, and will happily grow in shady spots, whether in the ground or in a container. But of course, it’s their blooms that really steal the show, lighting up the winter garden in shades of pink, red and white.

Sometimes, these shrubs can outgrow their space or start to look straggly. And occasionally, very old plants need their vitality restored. Pruning camellias can help – and these expert tips explain how.

Jen Stark, master gardener and founder of Happy DIY Home said: “Camellias can benefit from you pruning them every few years to stimulate healthy growth and thin out the more twiggy branches.”

Pruning camellias is a spring gardening job, to be done right after the shrubs have finished flowering but before new buds break (usually in late spring). 

The experts at Thompson & Morgan explained: “Although it’s possible to prune at any time of year, it’s best carried out immediately after flowering in spring to avoid cutting off the new growth that will produce the following year’s blooms.

If gardeners plan to cut theirs back hard to rejuvenate it, however, do so in early spring. Bear in mind that it can be a couple of years for camellias to flower to their full potential after this, says the Royal horticultural society.

Pruning camellias to reduce their size

Sometimes, these winter-flowering shrubs can start taking up too much space, particularly in a small garden. 

If they are beginning to get in the way, gardeners can trim it back 12 inches (30cm) or so to a more manageable size. Exposing the soil beneath can also be beneficial as it makes it easier to apply fertiliser and mulch.

John Negus, a gardening expert from Amateur Gardening said: “It doesn’t matter where you start – top or bottom. An important rule is to maintain a rounded symmetry to encourage healthy blooms to grow. Use sharp secateurs and, ideally, cut to just above a leaf.”

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Experts at the American Camellia Society (ACS) explained that the sharpness of pruning tools are important. They said: “A sharp cut will heal quicker than a jagged cut, which will also minimise the likelihood of disease investing a cut during pruning.”

While gardeners have their secateurs handy, remove any dead or diseased branches, too. Also cut out crisscrossing branches to reduce congestion if necessary.

This will improve airflow and help light to filter through, which encourages a healthier plant. Once gardeners have finished pruning camellias, strong new shoots should soon appear.

Pruning camellias to restore them

There are lots of stunning types of camellias to brighten up gardens. But, after a few years of growth, established shrubs can start to look tired and lackluster. 

Gardeners can prune them back hard to give them a “new lease of life”, however, it’s important to go slowly, according to John.

He said: “Pruning a camellia to regenerate it is best done in stages over two or three years. After sharpening and cleaning your pruning shears, cut back up to one third of the stems.

“The new shoots will come from the point at which the stem was cut. The following year, another third of the stems can be cut back, and the year after, the remaining third.”

Pruning camellias to improve their shape

Pruning camellias can also help younger plants establish a bushy, desirable form rather than one that is straggly. John explained: “Young plants often develop a leggy appearance and benefit from formative pruning to encourage branching, a dense habit and a good shape.

“Reduce the weakest and leggiest stems to two or three buds from their point of origin. New growth is likely to come from just below the pruning cuts, so you might also choose to cut back some of the other stems to encourage a good shape.”

Pruning to prevent diseases

According to the ACS, when pruning camellias it’s important to prune limbs “flush to the feeder branches without leaving nubs” as these leftover branches could eventually “provide host for disease to enter your camellias”.

To help prevent disease and pests, you need to know how to prune camellias to open up the centre of the plant. Jen advised: “Thin out some of the branches in the interior of the plant to improve airflow and sunlight penetration. Look at the inner branches and remove weak or small ones, making sure they’re not the main branches in the plant.”

Pol Bishop of Fantastic Gardeners also advised clearing all the stems from the lower 6-10in. (15-25cm), depending on the plant’s size, of the main trunk to prevent any small stems from touching the ground and infecting the plant with diseases. He adds that a fully grown camellia plant will tolerate drastic pruning without any long-term effects.

As for pruning technique, Tammy Sons, owner of Tennessee Wholesale Nursery, says it’s best to cut to a leaf that is pointing in the direction that you want the branch to grow, keeping in mind the overall shape and look of the plant. 

She added: “You can also choose to remove branches completely that are not growing in the right direction. It’s best to prune a camellia over time – each year cutting back until you reach a shape and size you are happy with.”

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