Camellia pruning

Pruning books tend to be unhelpful when it comes to pruning Camellias, typically saying that they require no pruning but may be cut hard if it becomes necessary. It’s not how I go about it.

This is Camellia japonica ‘Bob Hope’. This had grown as big as I wanted it to get by about six or seven years ago. Since then, every two or three years, I have reduced it in height and width. My aim is that it should end up smaller but not look like it has been pruned. To this end I take the tallest and widest shoots off, pruning to a suitable sideshoot that will then form part of the outline of the shrub. The cuts will be well within the leaf canopy and hidden from view. Most of the shoots I removed were between 12 and 20 inches in length.

The prunings pile.

The next to get my attention was camellia x williamsii ‘Debbie’. This was cut down a few years back because it was falling over and I wanted to give its root system a chance to establish properly. It meant though that the screening from neighbouring properties was lost. I have been keeping it pruned quite close for a few years to give the roots time, now I want to let it make a bit more height. I would anticipate it making two flushes of growth, the first, now under way, will be around 6 inches, then it will probably break again in July or August after a short rest and put on at least another foot.

Keeping it pruned down has led to it getting quite wide and rather flat topped, so I took a few stems off the sides and removed a few from underneath to allow a bit more light to the plants growing under it. Most of the shoots removed were 2-2.5 feet in length.

The prunings pile

The next to receive my attention was Camellia x williamsii ‘Charles Colbert’. This has had the lower branches removed to turn it into a small evergreen tree. I have also pruned the crown to restrict its size somewhat, mainly so that it remains within reach of my stepladder and telescopic pruner. That pruning has encouraged it to become rather denser than I would like; it starts to get lumpen in appearance and also lets no light through, creating more shade than I want. The task here then was to thin it. I simply removed perhaps a dozen shoots from the parts of the crown that were most dense, taking them off where they arose from bigger branches. These shoots were all two to three feet in length. I need to get my step ladder back out and remove a few of the longest shoots at the top of the bush.

The branches remaining will even themselves out in a week or two so as to best use the extra light available to them and at that point I may take a bit more out. I don’t want the crown to look too neat and symetrical, a topiary look is precisely what I’m trying to avoid.

The prunings pile

There may be no need to prune a camellia but if you don’t it will steadily get bigger. A lot of people are happy to let them get very large then chop them down by a half or two thirds. It’s not a method I’m a big fan of, is all I’m saying.

15 thoughts on “Camellia pruning

  1. Always an education to watch what you have done Jim, to remind, confirm, and encourage us to do it the right way. ‘Bob Hope’ is such a good camellia. The red on Bob Hope,The Czar and San Dimas all look very similar to me. All that lovely material going to waste – or are you propagating with any of it ? All the best.

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    1. All the prunings went through my shredder several times to get it quite fine, then onto my allotment. I wince at the expression “food waste” because it all gets recycled to the benefit of the next crop and I don’t regard it as waste. What I eat and send down the sewers is closer to waste. I’d say Bob Hope and San Dimas can be very similar though Bob Hope is usually darker and more double. The Czar I’d have said was more distinct.

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  2. This is a perfect and helpful explanation, Jim. I appreciate your wisdom and the great photos, as I’m about to prune my one camellia — Nuccio’s Pearl. I seem to be one of very few folks in my area of the PNW brave enough to grow a camellia. 😉

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    1. I dug out ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ a year or two back and the name keeps coming back to haunt me. It’s what Jon the Propagator planted, it’s the one variety you have. Has it rewarded your courage?

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  3. I have found the camellias respond favourably to pruning, Jim and work along very similar lines to those you have described above. Over recent years I have been keeping an eye on the pruning of camellias in Mount Congreve Gardens which is near us and has extensive plantings of camellias, generally in large drifts, in a woodland setting. Some of the earlier plantings are around 50 years old and were beginning to clog up the woodland, making it all too enclosed and dark, and there was a clear need to allow in more light. Most were tested with a half to three-quarter ringing of the bark to see if that would induce budding below and, when it did, the plants were cut back severely – a chainsaw pruning taking plants of three metres and more back to less than a metre. In all but a very exceptional plant all have responded with vigorous new growth though, as would be expected, with a loss of flowering in the first year.

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    1. They have done much the same at Mount Edgcumbe though without the ring barking phase. Almost all have grown back strongly, though deer have browsed some that were cut within their reach. The problem is that you get six or more shoots growing from every one you’ve cut so the new growth gets drawn up because it is congested. In the dryer areas or in very dry summers, they may only make first flush growth and flower within a couple of seasons. Where they have adequate moisture they make a much longer second flush and don’t bud and in several cases have grown back to the size they were before without starting to flower. If the regrowth is thinned and the late season growth removed or shortened, they can be brought back to flowering without getting massive again. The reality is that the sort of pruning I did on Bob Hope takes a skilled person 15-30 minutes evry two years whereas they can be hard pruned by unskilled labour in a fraction of the time at ten year intervals. Mt Edgcumbe just doesn’t have the manpower it needs to carefully prune 1600 camellias.

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  4. I love your planned response to unwanted growth. It would never have occurred to me to prune that way. Things get away from me, and I chop them down. A non-gardener has options, too!

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    1. I think get away from people because they don’t know how to stop them doing so. Most people who plant Wisteria know they are going to have to prune it or it will get away big time. They will also readily find advice about how and when to do it it so that it still flowers. For some reason most gardening books base the advice they give for pruning evergreens on the assumption that everyone has the space to let them grow naturally and these days very few people do. Pruning just to keep a plant at the size you want it to be is not regarded as a valid reason for pruning by the purists, though I don’t doubt it’s what they’d do if they suddenly found themselves with a small urban garden.

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  5. Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua were a pleasure to grow on the farm, and they were so easy to grow. Those in landscapes are completely different though. I loath pruning them, and can not bear to do it while they are blooming. Some have been neglected for many years, so get pruned back severely. Some get cut to the ground because salvage would be too involved and take several years. If they regenerate from their stumps, that would be just fine. If not, it is no major loss.

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    1. If I look out my window there are two Camellias in the gardens of two elderly ladies down the road, both clipped into egg shaped topiaries around eight feet high. They are presumably clipped over by their gardener at some point in the year but I’ve not noticed anything in the few years I’ve been paying attention. They flower remarkably well, helped by being in full sun. I figured if they could keep them to a manageable size, so could I, but I wanted an au naturelle look rather than topiary. It’s simple enough until they are out of reach of the ground. In parks and big gardens that is too small a scale and working from a ladder at ten feet on uneven ground is a totally different ball game.

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      1. That is impressive that they get pruned like that are are still able to bloom. I almost never see camellias bloom after getting pruned by ‘gardeners’. Gardeners who know anything about horticulture are very rare. They shear everything they can reach when it happens to be convenient for them. Someone who prunes a camellia in a manner that allows it to bloom must know the schedule of the plants.

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      2. Poor soil, growing in grass, full sun so they hardly make any second flush growth and quite short first flush growths all of which produce flower buds. It helps when you’re not fighting against what the plant wants to do. In moist. fertile, light shade they’d have a struggle to contain them and get flower.

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