Growing Camellias Outdoors
When to Plant
The best time to plant is early in the fall, or after the last spring frost. The advantage of fall transplanting is that the plant can establish roots before the hot summer months and require less frequent watering. In milder areas, Camellias can be planted through winter. If an early/late frost is predicted, new transplants can be protected from cold damage by covering it with a garbage can or cardboard box. Spring planting is recommended for colder areas. This gives the plant an opportunity to become acclimated before winter and therefore reduces the risk of cold damage on small or tender plants.
Selecting a Site
The most important consideration when selecting a site for your new plant is good soil drainage. Opt for more elevated areas of your landscape; even marginal sites with brief periods of wet soil can be improved with a raised bed. Camellias are sensitive to water-logged soil, so areas that tend to collect runoff or remain soggy for extended periods of time should be avoided.
Your plant’s new home should be protected from winter sun and wind. Camellias are most susceptible to damage caused by dry conditions while they are dormant during the winter months. While C. japonica and C. sinensis can tolerate full shade, they do not thrive. For these species, four to six hours of direct or filtered sunlight is best to nurture full, healthy plants. Without adequate sunlight, blooms will not form; too much sunlight causes leaves to yellow and burn. Camellia sasanqua, however, tolerates full sunlight well, sporting dark green foliage while providing an excellent floral display.
Preparation and Planting
Start by tilling a 3- to 5-inch thick layer of compost into the existing soil, 4- to 5-feet around the area you've chosen for your plant. Any well-aged organic matter will work including soil conditioner, aged manure, and broken down leaves. This will make a slightly raised bed for planting.
In the center of your freshly tilled bed, dig a hole no deeper than the existing soil in the pot. Position the plant so that the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Be careful not to dig too deeply; this can allow the plant to settle below ground level which decreases the plant’s ability to collect nutrients and increases the likelihood of root rot. Back fill as needed, forming a berm around the root ball. This will allow water to slowly permeate the surface where it’s most needed while encouraging outward root growth.
If your soil is mostly heavy clay or severely compacted from construction of a new home, tilling compost over a larger area will give your new plant plenty of space and nutrients to grow.
Regular watering is necessary for the first year until the plant establishes roots in the surrounding soil. Check for dryness in the soil at the base of the plant, about half an inch below the surface. Water deeply, thoroughly soaking the root ball, as often as needed; usually once or twice weekly, more frequently in especially hot or dry conditions.
Use caution with any fertilizer, as Camellias are prone to burn. Typical 10-10-10 fertilizer should be used at the lowest recommended rate. Several light applications from March through June will support healthy development while discouraging tender, late season growth. Organic and/or slow-release fertilizers are a great alternative as they tend to have lower nutrient concentrations that are released over a longer period of time. Regular watering seems to result in more rapid growth than excess fertilizer.
Although Camellias respond well to pruning, sending out a new shoot from the leaf joint just below any cuts, it is generally unnecessary. If you feel the need to trim and shape your plant, the safest time to do so is immediately after it's bloom season ends.
After fall or spring blooms fade, it is safe to remove any long, whippy growth or stray branches without running the risk of losing flower buds. Keep in mind that ALL Camellia species begin forming flower buds in May or June, so pruning over the summer could result in significantly fewer flowers.
Removal of any large branches or significant shortening of the plant should only be done over the winter months, while the plant is dormant. Healthy Camellias are quick to regenerate; a plant that is cut back to only a few feet in height can become full and bushy in only a matter of years.
Ultimately, we recommend allowing Camellias to grow to their natural height of 15 feet or more.