Pruning Camellias

by Allan Swinbourne

Pruning is done for a number of reasons and probably the most important is to produce good blooms which would otherwise be damaged by foliage brushing against them. A camellia should be kept to a manageable height, open to allow air and light into the centre which makes a healthier bush, also it is easier and more effective to spray for pests. All dead wood, crossing branches and useless twiggy growth should be removed. Branches should be clear of the ground, say about 50cm, otherwise blooms on these branches are ruined by mud splashing. A well pruned camellia should have an open symmetrical appearance and the way it is pruned will depend on the variety and consideration must be made for its natural growth habit.

The tools needed are sharp secateurs (no cheap ones are any good), pruning saw, sharp grafting knife and a grafting mastic such as Colgraft. The tools should be clean so that any disease is not transmitted from one bush to another. Captan, Benlate or even a solution of Dettol should be satisfactory. All cuts 6 mm and larger should be sealed, but wait until the pruning is completed before sealing with Colgraft otherwise there will be as much Colgraft on you as there is on the bush.

When using secateurs (sharp) always cut with the blade close to the branch which is left, or in other words, have the heal or anvil of the secateurs (which bruises the bark) on the side of the discarded piece. I sometimes think that right hand and left hand secateurs could be an advantage.

Sometimes an old large camellia starts to look ragged, dull foliage and generally unhappy and I feel that the top part has grown ahead of the available root area and in this case its the saw. I would say cut the branches to 120 cm to 150 cm high to produce new growth. This is what I intend to do with an old Prince Frederick William. There are a few reservations I would suggest. Do not prune a young bush except for a runaway branch and general shaping and do not cut the top until the desired height is reached. I find this is important with the Elegans Family (there are probably others) as they do not appear to produce a new leader.

With regard to Reticulatas I have found that if a branch is cut and there is no active growth bud or signs of growth from a leaf axil on the trunk side, the whole branch will die.

The main pruning time is at the end of the flowering season and before new growth starts. While Sasanquas are the last to shoot it is advisable to prune them first so that is one job finished. I think it is better to start pruning early even if some flowers are sacrificed as it is a hopeless job pruning with new growth taking off as the new shoots are so easily brushed off. A further light pruning can be made during mid summer (which is the best time to take scions for propagation). Actually pruning and thinning should be done year round.

When buds appear some shoots will have no buds, so why not cut them off to leave more room for the ones with buds to open without damage?

When an old camellia is heavily pruned and large branches are sawn the ideal procedure is to trim the ends with a pruning knife, always cutting from the edges towards the centre so that the bark is not damaged. Time usually prevents this being done, so always endeavour to damage the bark as little as possible. Stubs should not be left and again, if possible, use the knife to remove the small amount of stub left, even to scooping slightly into the trunk or branch and the wound will then callous over very quickly. New growth will shoot out in many places round the branch ends, so rub off all shoots except one or two on each branch or the whole exercise will be in vain.

Now to the prunings, don’t burn them or take them to the tip – mulch them. Camellia foliage is an ideal mulch for camellias and it can be done a number of ways. The best is to have a chopping machine but this is rather an expensive way. I find that cutting the foliage from branches larger than 6mm, spreading it on the ground and cutting with a rotary lawn mower is quite effective, or the branches can be cut with secateurs into 50 mm pieces, or put the lot on the compost heap, cover and let the foliage decompose, then burn the branches. All diseased foliage and die back should be burnt.

Every time I prune I wonder why some growth was left and not cut off earlier and think it is perhaps failing eye sight or the changing of ideas, but I am certain it is the latter and this is what makes the whole exercise so interesting. As you see the results, good and bad, during the year you decide on your next pruning project which is sure to be different to the last one. To conclude I quote the Professor “Don’t leave stubs” and “If any branch offends the eye – cut it off”.