Camellia pruning revisited.

Camellia pruning revisited.

I wrote an article on pruning camellias two years ago in this post. I’m not sure that in writing a new article I’m saying anything much that’s new, but I have added more detail about some aspects and it now feels more complete. There is also new functionality on the WordPress blog which I wanted to take advantage of for before and after comparisons.

The advice in most of my books seems to be a variation on regular pruning being unnecessary for Camellias with a rider that if they get too big they can be cut back severely. I wouldn’t say that either of these is untrue but it does lack detail and for anyone growing Camellias in a confined space some regular pruning will almost certainly be needed. I have been growing camellias in Cornwall for many years and for various reasons have found myself carrying out a lot more pruning of them than one might be led to expect.

In setting out what I have done and what has resulted from it, it is important to realise that Camellias will grow differently in different conditions and that it is a very large group of plants not all of which will have the same growth pattern and which will not all respond in the same way to a particular pruning method.

How Camellias grow.
A “typical” deciduous shrub, Spiraea for example, has a suckering habit. It has multiple stems from ground level and each year, if in good health, will produce several more. The new shoots grow quickly to the height of the shrub, with little, if any branching. In their second year they produce laterals on which the flowers are carried. The following year sub-laterals are produced and carry the flowers. Under the weight of increasing twigginess and flowering, the branches arch over and the new growth, which is fairly upright, comes up through the middle of the bush. Pruning consists of taking a proportion of the oldest, twiggiest, least flowery shoots each year. The plant is constantly renewing itself and even without pruning, the oldest branches will die off and be replaced by new ones.

Camellias do not renew themselves in this way. Like “typical” trees, they usually have a single stem at ground level and produce extension growth over their entire surface each year. This extension of the existing shoots may be as little as a couple of centimetres or as much as 60-80cms. Growth typically happens in two phases. In spring the buds break and produce a shoot between 5 and 15cm in length. Each dormant shoot may grow just from the terminal bud or from the terminal plus one to four or five lateral buds. This phase of growth is complete by May or June and is often all that is produced in the whole growing season. If that is the case, flower buds will usually form at the apices of both the terminal and lateral shoots. Alternatively, the terminal bud will break again in July or August and make further growth, usually a good deal longer than the earlier growth. This may happen across the bush, on a limited number of shoots at the top of the bush, or not at all. It makes the difference between the plant putting on 5-15cm in the season, or 65-85cm. Because this growth is produced quite late in the year, it rarely produces flower buds.

In the images below the early 2019 growth flush is marked in red, the late flush in blue. Some of the less vigorous laterals have flower buds, some not. The apical buds have made much longer second flush growths, none of which have flower buds. Only the early flush growth from 2018 and 2017 remains as the second flush growth was all pruned off in the autumn of the year it was produced.

Formative pruning.
By this I refer to the pruning required to get the plant off to a shapely start in life. Nurseries aim for a bushy, well budded plant as this is what they believe their customers want. To this end the first flush growth is pinched to encourage several second flush growths rather than one. This makes for a stocky, sturdy plant with several low branches. Planted out as a free standing plant, this will make it easy to maintain a foliage canopy right to the ground. My own preference is to allow the bush to develop more naturally so that it has a single stem for the lowest foot or so, branching naturally, i.e. not too densely, above this. In this case the first flush growth is not pinched but allowed to break naturally.  In both cases the second flush growth will be shortened or removed completely as it will be unnaturally long if, as is usual, the young plant is growing under cover.

Once planted out, the rate of growth will be slower, but depending on the variety and how you want the plant to develop, removal of some or all of the second flush growth will likely carry on for a year or two at least.

Regular pruning.

If the space available is small, it is folly to plant a variety that will outgrow it in just a few years. If the bush has to be pruned to keep it at a fraction of its natural size, it will be at the expense of flowers and there will eventually be little point in having it at all. There are some smaller growing varieties, a few with a narrow upright habit and a few that keep quite low and grow sideways. The vast majority of readily available varieties however, will want to grow to a height of at least 3-5m with a width only a little less. If space permits, the plant can be left to develop on its own without any pruning and this is likely to give you the best flower displays.

If control over growth rate is required, the first and easiest option is to remove the second flush growth entirely. By August or September it is easy to distinguish flower buds from vegetative buds, the flower buds being much fatter. The purely vegetative growth can be removed from autumn onwards, so long as it is left late enough for their to be no risk of encouraging renewed growth. I have removed this type of growth from mid September on without any problems. There is the additional benefit that the flower buds are not now hidden beneath new growth so that in spring, when they open, they will be seen to best effect.

In the images below I have shown two possible pruning options but while you probably would chose to keep all the flower buds, how much or how little you prune off above them is entirely optional. Removing all the non-flowering shoots leaves the flower buds on top of the bush where they will be seen to best effect. Whether, as in summer pruning of fruit trees, removal of all the vegetative growth reduces the overall vigour of the plant, promoting flowering, or alternatively, is quite rigorous pruning that may encourage strong growth the following season, I don’t know. I believe other factors have a much greater influence on the plant’s response.

By this means, growth is restricted to the length of the first flush growth, usually 5-15cm a year, but it is not stopped altogether and the bush will still get larger. In the following sequence of shots, taken after autumn pruning to remove the second flush growth, you can see that this vigorous growing bush of Camellia ‘Debbie’ has made about an extra 15cm height each year.

These two shots from 2nd September 2018 show how much more growth there would be each year without pruning.

It may be that even at this controlled rate of growth, the bush gets as big as you want it to be and you wish to keep it at around the same height indefinitely. To do so, an additional pruning operation is required. In spring, as the last flowers fade but before new growth starts (a window that not all varieties provide) more growth is removed.

The aim is to keep the bush looking as natural as possible; to remove as much growth as required but to not be able to see where it has been removed from. This is a job I do every two or three years, meaning I need to remove two or three years worth of growth to maintain the size of the bush. I track the shoots that form the extremities of the bush back into the bush, to a well furnished sideshoot, then cut the main shoot just above the sideshoot. Repeat this over the entire bush and the overall outline will shrink but still look reasonably natural. It doesn’t have to be done with great precision but you do need to know exactly what you are about to remove before you make the cut. I find it works best if I don’t overthink it, but I’m aware that’s easy for me to say.

You can easily end up removing quite a lot of growth from the bush and the more you remove, the greater is likely to be the impact on flower bud production later in the year. It may also encourage more second flush growth but that is simply removed later in the year.

Removing second flush growth inevitably leads to a denser bush, with more shoots produced on a bush that is not increasing much in size. Thinning out the growth can make for a more pleasing appearance, especially on a plant that has a clear trunk and something of a tree habit. The method is the same as for reducing the size but with the focus on the densest areas of the canopy rather than the tallest shoots. Don’t get carried away, removing a third of the canopy is as much as should be done at one time. It is also the case that a very dense canopy of foliage will shade out leafy growth inside the bush, leaving nothing green to cut back to if you want to reduce the size of the bush. Reducing the density of the canopy lets more light through to the ground below, perhaps opening up possibilities for growing shade lovers beneath the bush.

In the sequence below I reduce my Camellia ‘Bob Hope’ by 30-40cm. I start by visualizing where I want it’s outline to be and what currently is beyond that. I cut out longer shoots, hiding the cuts within the new outline of the bush. You can see the length of the shoots and the beginnings of new growth in the pile of prunings. Two years on, it has put back on what was removed and is covered in flower buds. I will probably prune it again this year or may leave it for one more year.

Not so regular pruning.
If you plant camellias in significant numbers and allow less than four metres or so between them, then leave them to grow without intervention, you will eventually end up with a spooky dwarf woodland, very dark, with smooth sinuous trunks supporting an unbroken canopy of evergreen foliage. Dead leaves and flowers will often accumulate in the foliage canopy, making it denser still, and it may be that a fine flower display is produced above it each year but you won’t know, because you won’t be able to see any of it. If only this were an exaggeration, or even a rarity; sadly it is not.

In an ideal world, such a situation would not arise but we don’t live in an ideal world. Once this point is reached, or preferably a lot sooner, rather more drastic pruning is required. Fortunately, Camellias usually respond remarkably well to harsh pruning, but it would be untrue to say there are no risks involved.

Before carrying out severe pruning on a camellia it is as well to have a pretty clear idea of what the response will be and what you want to end up with. If the bush is twice as high as you want it and you remove half its height, the very first growth it makes takes it back above the height you want. In most circumstances it is better to err on the side of cutting too much off rather than too little.

When cut through their main branches, Camellias respond by long dormant buds growing out to replace what has been removed. Almost always, the vast majority of regrowth will be within 30cm of where you made the cut. Growth is often vigorous, predominantly vertical and you can expect 6 shoots or more to grow from every cut branch. In good growing conditions you will get two flushes of growth a year and 60-90cm increase in height. If conditions permit, that vigorous growth can be repeated for several years, taking the bush back to its original height in around five years. The exact response seems to depend heavily on the growing conditions the plant gets in the years following pruning. In drier, sunnier locations, there may not be enough moisture available by midsummer for the plant to make a second flush of growth. The short early flush growth gets a chance to produce flower buds instead and the desired end of a smaller, but free flowering bush is achieved. If moisture is available the bush may soon be back to the size it was before pruning, but with growth much denser than before and with minimal flower production.

You may choose to prune the bushes down to 50-100cm so that the regrowth is at viewing height. If deer are a problem, they may feast on the regrowth, so pruning should be higher, aiming to produce regrowth beyond their reach. There is also a slightly increased risk of killing the bush with more severe pruning. The biggest drawback with this mode of pruning is that the regrowth is often so strong that in around five years the plant is back to the size it was before and often only just beginning to flower freely again.

This type of severe pruning is usually carried out immediately after flowering and before new growth commences. From the point of view of the plant’s response, it would best be done between mid February and mid March irrespective of flowering but the difference it makes is probably not very significant. By June or July new shoots will be pushing through the bark, concentrated in the 15-30cms behind the cut end. There are likely to be many shoots, all around the branch and by seasons end there may be up to 30cm of new growth.

Essentially you now have the choice of letting the plant grow back unchecked or adopting one of the strategies described earlier to keep the plant’s size in check. If you decide to try to keep the plant under control, you need to manage the very strong growth that is likely to occur following hard pruning. The response can vary a great deal, you may get dense masses of short, early season shoots and no late season extension growth or you may get metre long shoots with hardly a pause between first and second flush. What you do next depends on how the plant has behaved. Dense clusters of shoots should be thinned out, removing half to two thirds completely, cutting as neatly as the bunched shoots allow. The following year there will probably be the usual pattern of two flushes of growth. Much or all of the second flush growth can be removed in the following winter and further thinning can be carried out at any time. Thinning should be targeted at the densest clumps of shoots. It may be easier to remove whole branches with all their new growth in some instances, especially if the branch system is congested following earlier hard pruning treatment.

Some varieties will produce new shoots all along the branches but most will have them heavily concentrated near the cut branch ends. New growth around the sides of the bush is likely to be sparse compared to that at the top. Shoots arising from well down the main branches can be left to furnish the lower parts of the bush or removed to create a clean limbed, tree-like effect.

Very occasionally the bush will respond by producing no new growth and dying. Sometimes parts will make regrowth and other parts will die. Sometimes there will be strong re-growth only for it to wither during the winter and the whole branch or bush to die. Even when this happens it is as well to cut off the dead wood but not rush to dig out the roots as a proportion of apparently dead plants will rise, phoenix like, by producing new shoots from below ground. In my experience regrowth followed by winter dieback or death is only likely in cold, wet situations such as north facing slopes under trees and even then affects only a small minority of bushes.

In a large collection, it may be available time that dictates how plants are managed. To carefully thin and reduce a plant every two or three years may take 30-45 minutes per plant, requiring skilled labour to do it. Hard pruning can be done in ten minutes per bush using unskilled operatives and not need repeating for a decade. In the latter situation it is unlikely that there will be any follow up to the “hatrack” pruning, the bushes being left to grow unchecked until it becomes necessary to repeat the process.

Another factor is the scale of the planting and the size of the plants within it. In my small garden 2m is as tall as I want to allow most of my camellias to grow. That does mean that regular pruning is required but it also means that the entire bush is within reach of my secateurs from the ground. In a larger scale planting, 2m is the point at which the plants start to look in scale with their surroundings and 3-4m tall bushes may be the norm. Even on flat ground working from step ladders on a bush 3m wide is challenging. On a slope it is almost impossible and quite hazardous. I have a telescopic pruner which makes it possible to prune 3m bushes provided they have something of a taper in to the top, rather than being very rounded. Second flush growth can be fairly quickly pruned off, any time between mid September and spring. Accuracy of cutting isn’t critical but working from the ground can lead to a stiff neck and bright sun can be very unhelpful.

Managing a collection becomes a matter of deciding how each of the plants is going to be managed, trying to avoid pruning where possible, keeping it simple and ground based and spread it over as wide a time period as is compatible with the needs of the plants and other tasks that must be carried out. Received wisdom is that Camellia reticulata responds much less well to hard pruning than do the other more widely grown groups, so these should be planted where they can be left to grow naturally. Certainly bushes in poor health are likely to respond poorly, it is not a reliable method of rejuvenation and likely to fail if the reasons for the plant being in poor health are not identified and addressed.

The following images will hopefully give you a clearer idea of what the likely response to severe pruning will be. There is no certainty about it but it may help you to get where you want to be in a shorter time.

5/6/2018 ‘Twiss Cornwall’, or ‘Saturnia as I’ve now realised it should be, two years after severe pruning. It was cut high to be out of reach of deer. I’just thinned it at this stage. I need to use my telescopic pruner to remove late season extension growth later in the year. Note that in addition to thinning the new shoots I’ve also removed a little more of the main framework.

Finally, by way of saying keep your eye on the prize, five camellias in my own small garden, where keeping things within bounds is essential, photographed five minutes ago. All have been pruned to a greater or lesser degree, I don’t want them all looking the same and I certainly don’t want them to look like topiary. I do want them to flower well and I do want them to look at home in a fairly informal garden.

Propagation by cuttings.

Almost all the camellia cuttings I have ever taken have been done between late July and late August. In my nursery days the big groups of plants we propagated were camellias, fuchsias and conifers. The Camellias were taken in summer and were rooted by mid winter when they were weaned off and replaced by conifers. The conifers were moved on in early spring to be replaced by Fuchsias. As it happens, the camellias could have been taken in autumn/winter with similar results but the conifers wouldn’t have succeeded in summer.

At a guess, most people reading this won’t have a mist system and I think it may be easier to take camellia cuttings in autumn/winter without one. Apart from the timing, everything else remains the same.

There are several methods available for propagating camellias but the overwhelming majority of those on sale in the UK will have been raised from cuttings. Cuttings provide a reasonably inexpensive and quick way to produce a saleable plant for the nursery or garden centre. Furthermore, the plants will usually be true to type and resemble their parents in all characteristics.

In principle, we take advantage of the plant’s ability to regrow missing parts, in this case a root system, by taking a shoot and providing it with an environment that is conducive to it surviving in good condition long enough for new roots to develop. The principle is very simple; in practice it is more complicated as there are many variables involved and getting each of them right will increase your success rate in terms of percentage take and quality of end result.

Cutting material.
Cuttings are taken from shoots of the current season that have finished growing and firmed up. The bark will probably have turned from green to brown. This may be available from late June to the end of August, depending on the season and the variety. Different varieties of camellias start into growth at different times from March into May. Typically they will make new shoots all over the plant of around 75-100mm in length. Poorly growing plants may only produce shoots of 25mm or less; strong growers may reach 150mm or more. Since we are aiming for cuttings around 75mm long, it is often the case that the shoot can be cut at the base of the current season’s growth. Where the shoots are longer than this, the cutting may be taken below a leaf, at a node. It is still the terminal 75mm or so that is used. Where growth has been very poor, very short cuttings may succeed, again taken at the base of the current season’s growth. Making a longer cutting by using some of the previous year’s growth is unlikely to succeed.

Cuttings can be taken later in the year, up until November. The same material is used but flower buds will likely have formed and should be removed. The shoot will have hardened up and will as a result take a little longer to root. If further growth has been made after August it is unlikely to be suitable for cuttings, being too soft, too long and with long internodes. I did a batch of 90 cuttings in late February 2019 and had 62 (69%) rooted and potted up by autumn. Most of the rest are still alive and may still root.

Care must be taken that at no stage does the material dry out. Ideally collect cuttings early in the day, placing them into plastic bags which have been wetted in advance. Keep them in shade. Write a label at the time of collection and be sure it remains with the batch of cuttings at all times.

Camellia shoot from which cutting to be prepared.
a) Point at which cutting removed from bush.
b) Cut made here to produce cutting approx 75cm long.
c) Alternative cut position if shoot were longer.
d) This leaf removed.
e) This leaf probably kept under mist, otherwise removed.
f) Flower buds at early stage of development.
e) Vegetative buds.

Preparing cuttings.
Lower leaves are removed, leaving two or three leaves for most varieties, up to five for small leaved forms. Leaves are best left intact so as not to encourage disease. A clean cut is made with a sharp knife either just below a leaf or at the base of the shoot.
It is widespread practice to wound the cutting by cutting the bark off one side of the cutting for about 1-1.5 cm at the base.

Prepared cutting with wound at base. One or two more leaves could be removed.

The use of hormone rooting treatment is likely to produce a better root system on the cutting but won’t make something root that doesn’t have the capacity to do so. Professional growers usually use IBA, Indol butyric acid, whereas growers relying on retail products will find most products contain NAA, napthylacetic acid. Powder, liquid, gel and tablet formulations may be found. Cuttings should not be dipped into the main container: as much as needed should be tipped into a smaller container and any surplus discarded. Dry products will last for several years if kept dry, uncontaminated, air tight and cool.

Cell tray with 20 cuttings in Sylvagrow compost.

Once treated, the cuttings are stuck into trays of compost. Cell trays have the advantage of less root disturbance when potting the rooted cuttings up but the volume of compost available to each cutting is very small and drying out can be a problem, especially at the edge of benches or with bigger or leafier cuttings. I have found coir compost to produce good results under a mist system, it generally remaining moist from the mist without becoming waterlogged. Currently I am using Melcourt Sylvagrow compost and getting good results. Many substrates are used, with each grower having found something that works for them. Thus various mixtures of peat, bark chips, perlite and various other ingredients will all work provide that they provide support for the cutting and have a suitable balance between water retention and good aeration.

Cuttings should be stuck only deep enough to hold them vertical. Most root growth is from the basal 10mm of the cutting and strongly downwards. If the cuttings are stuck too deep or the rooting medium is too shallow, the rooting zone may be very limited.

Rooted cuttings showing root growth downward only from cutting base.

Rooting environment.
In a commercial setting the trays of cuttings are likely to be put onto a mist bench with bottom heat. An electronic “leaf” is placed amongst the cuttings; when it dries out a signal is sent to a controller which operates a valve and produces a burst of fine mist over the cuttings. The “leaf” is wetted, making a circuit between electrodes on its surface and the controller then stops the mist burst. Depending on conditions, the mist burst may be from every few minutes to every few hours.

Setting up a mist bench is quite costly and its relative complexity means there is quite a lot to go wrong. For small numbers of cuttings it is probably inappropriate and one very good grower of my acquaintance managed very well without. (or bottom heat either)
An atmosphere of 100% humidity can be provided around the cuttings by covering them with polythene. This could be a plastic bag secured with a rubber band over a pot containing a few cuttings, right up to low polythene tunnels 1-2m wide and many metres long. Polythene films are available specifically for propagation and may be clear or milky. Clear plastic hoods that fit a standard seed tray are readily available.

Shade from direct sunlight is essential. An unrooted cutting will not be doing a lot of photosynthesizing, so quite low light levels will suffice and in summer at least 50% shading will be in order.

Bottom heat is usually reckoned to speed root production and the combination of cool tops (from the cooling effect of evaporation) and warm bottoms, is supposed to be the winning recipe provided by a mist bench. I would caution against temperatures over 21°C as I am fairly certain that too high a temperature can lead to a lot of callus production which the new roots cannot then break through. It also increases the risk of the compost drying out, another thing I suspect encourages excess callusing.

Camellia cuttings root very slowly so it is likely to be winter before they are rooted and early spring before they need potting up. A dilute liquid feed at 6-8 week intervals will prevent the cuttings getting starved over the rooting period. The rooted cuttings will then be potted into 9cm pots in a suitable compost and grown on for a season. I would leave cuttings in their cell trays until late winter even if they are rooted much earlier, not wanting to disturb and possibly damage the root system until it is poised to make new growth.

When roots are poking through the bottom of the propagation container they are ready for potting up. Sometimes a mass of callus is produced but no roots and it may be worth cutting much of this away, re-treating with hormone and sticking them back in the rooting medium.

Cutting taken 31/7/2019, potted spring 2019. Photo 2/11/2019. A beautiful variety you won’t find in any UK nursery to my knowledge.

It is worth bearing in mind that camellia roots are much less hardy than the tops. Steps must be taken to prevent pots freezing as this is likely to be fatal.

There is a huge range of ease of rooting with camellias. At one extreme are the reticulatas, which if they root at all are likely to have poor, weak root systems. The reticulata hybrids can be almost as difficult and often produce very strong, thick shoots which are far from ideal propagation material. At the other extreme are modern varieties like Debbie, where 100% success is achievable. Very old clones are likely to be harder to root than younger ones. If a variety was raised 200 years ago, its physiological age is 200 years, even if you are propagating from a plant of it that is only 10 years old.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to worry more about keeping the cuttings in good condition and less about trying to make it produce roots. Success cannot be guaranteed. If it is achieved, satisfaction can be.



Change of plan

Not that I had much of a plan when I went up to Mount Edgcumbe this morning. I was going to number the plants in section 5B, see what was flowering and take some photos and get pictures of the labels I’d attached last week.

That’s not what happened. They have a group of young German landscape students over for a couple of weeks and today was given over to introducing some of them to the Camellia collection and getting their help to carry out some fairly drastic pruning.

Section 5A contains European varieties, mostly quite old. It is one of the oldest sections of the collection, probably planted in the 1980’s, and it is on a very steep bank along one side of the Earl’s Drive. The steep slope emphasises the height of the bushes, which were mostly 10-12 feet tall, and because you are looking up at them with a background of sky through the still bare branches of the trees, the flowers are not shown off at all well. Nor is it possible to see anything but the path facing side of the first row of plants.

The majority of the plants in this section were cut to 5-6 feet about ten years ago and I should think are now back to about the same height as when they were cut. No thinning or shortening of the regrowth was carried out so they are much denser than they would have been before cutting. Indeed the contrast between the bushes that had been pruned and the ones that hadn’t was quite stark, the latter having grown rather lanky with sparse foliage.

Most have been cut back to just above where they were cut a decade ago, which usually involved cutting around six strongly vertical shoots that had grown up from just below the earlier pruning cut. The plan now is to thin and shorten the regrowth in the hope that the bushes can be brought back into flowering without getting either as big or as dense again.

The challenge with that is that most of today’s pruning was done standing on the very steep ground and using loppers to make cuts almost at full stretch. In some cases I climbed into the bush to reach. Thus pruning the regrowth is going to need tools to reach a metre or more above my head.

The effect is brutal and several park visitors voiced their concerns. Hopefully by the end of the summer it will look very different. It already looks much lighter and far less overbearing and the glimpses of background between the bushes is a big improvement.
The unpruned bush in the picture has still not flowered since it was last pruned; it was one of the smaller bushes in the section but shows how dense the growth had been.

At the end of a full on day I made my way back to the carpark and was moved to stop and take pictures a few times on the way.

Camellia japonica ‘Fred Sander’ is a fimbriated sport of ‘Lady de Saumerez’, which is to say it has raggedy edges to very twisted petals. ‘Lady de Saumerez’ is a solid pink sport of ‘Tricolor’. ‘Fred Sander’ doesn’t seem to produce buds that are big enough to contain the petals and they are showing the coloured tips of the petals by the turn of the year or earlier, long before ‘Lady de Saumerez’. However, the buds are very slow to open and ‘Lady de Saumerez’ has all but finished flowering before ‘Fred Sander’ gets going. Sadly, because Fred has had the edges of his petals exposed for so long, they are very likely to have been frosted, as in this picture.

Further on I dug my camera out again for Camellia japonica ‘William Honey’. This will have been one of the earliest varieties in the collection but the original plant has gone and this is now the only one. At 8-10cm across the blooms are bigger than quite a few of the pink striped varieties and the mix of petaloids and stamens in the middle adds interest.

I bagged one more before I headed home for a cup of tea. Camellia x williamsii ‘Olga Carlyon’ is not in the Camellia Register so was presumably never registered. It was labelled ‘Rosemary Sawle’ and has only recently been re-labelled correctly. It has a loose, informal feel about it, combined with a delicate pink colour; I like it very much.


“These popular evergreen shrubs require very little pruning.”

Advice on pruning Camellias generally starts from the above standpoint, taken from George Brown’s “The Pruning of Trees, Shrubs and Conifers.” The implication is that very little pruning will ever be required and that you’ll probably get away with none at all.
Camellias however, are long lived plants, their lifespan on the scale of trees. Their growth rate is much slower than most trees though, so gardeners don’t give the same amount of thought to how big they will eventually get and what the consequences of that will be. It is a similar scenario to that of “dwarf” and slow growing conifers; massively popular in the 1960’s and 70’s, now nearly all gone because they outgrew their location and the only course of action was removal.

Perhaps the ideal is to let the plant get to the size required, or the maximum that its situation allows, then maintain it at that size. If you have a bush that is at that point it is possible to achieve that aim in one of two ways. You can clip it into a rounded (or square or whatever shape you want) dome and go on doing so on an annual basis. There is no denying that this works; there are several plants in gardens nearby that have been maintained in this way for years. They even flower pretty well.

Alternatively, and much more satisfactorily as far as I’m concerned, you can stand back and look for the branches that go beyond the outline you require and cut them back to a side shoot that is within the outline you require. That is likely to be best carried out after flowering in the spring and can be followed up in the autumn by removing any long extension growths that have been made in the second half of the summer and which have no flower buds for the following season on them.


This bush of ‘Bob Hope’ is as large as I want it to get and as soon as it has finished flowering I will cut back all its longer shoots so that its outline is about a foot further in all over.

In practice, most people don’t do this and the plant eventually outgrows its space. Paradoxically, it is the people with small gardens who are most likely to prune their plants. In a bigger garden plants need to be larger to be in scale with their surroundings but once the plant is too tall to be pruned from the ground it is more difficult and liable to be put off until unavoidable. Groups of Camellias grow into each other and become dark and bare stemmed beneath an evergreen “roof”. If they flower it is only the birds overhead that witness it.

Camellias are not averse to pruning in the way that most conifers are and when they have outgrown their situation there is a second option available which avoids removal. This is to prune them hard and to retrain them to a small sized bush that can then hopefully be maintained as described in the previous paragraph.

Camellias are hard to kill. I have seen large bushes, 8-10 feet tall, crushed under large falling trees such that all that is left is a jagged stump a few inches tall sticking out of the ground; then a year later they have produced shoots and are starting to come back. I have even dug plants out completely with a decent sized rootball only to come back a couple of years later to a ring of shoots growing up from the roots left beyond the rootball. So reducing a tree by half or two thirds is very unlikely to kill it.

In the vast majority of cases, if hard pruning is carried out in late winter, by the end of the following summer there will be a forest of new growth from just below the cut ends. Even if you can’t bear to cut a large bush in flower or just about to flower and delay pruning until the flowers are finished, you are likely to get almost the same response. It can be anywhere between six inches and 30 inches in my experience, with a whole raft of factors affecting the response. In general a strong healthy plant in good growing conditions will respond much better than a less favoured plant.


Two large bushes pruned hard in May 2015. By mid June they were beginning to shoot.

The upshot of this is that a strong plant will be back to the same size as it was before cutting but with much denser growth, in as little as five years. Since it may take as long to start flowering freely again that is clearly unsatisfactory. Plants in shade are worse in this regard, the shade causes more lanky growth and lack of sun reduces the number of shoots whose growth is cut short by a flower bud forming.

Pruning needs to be carried out with a picture in mind of what size you want the plant to grow back to. You need to anticipate the amount of regrowth you expect and cut back enough such that with that regrowth, the plant is still within the size desired. So if you want an eight foot bush and expect three feet of new growth after pruning, you need to cut to five feet.

Bob Flowerdew, talking about thinning plums on Gardeners Question Time said to thin them until you cry, then go back and thin them some more. It is much the same with camellias. If you have cut off 10 branches, why would you want 50 or 100 to regrow? They will be thin, crowding each other and drawing each other up in competition for light. They need to be thinned out to probably a maximum of three to each cut stem. They should also probably be shortened back, particularly if they are very long and thin. Thinning can be done any time, the sooner the better. Shortening back is perhaps best done in early September, late enough for regrowth not to occur that season and for flower buds to be visible, yet early enough for the reduction in foliage to reduce the plant’s vigour a little.


Ten or more shoots have grown from this one cut stem. All but two or three well spaced and positioned shoots need to be removed completely.

This pruning needs to start in the same year as the pruning took place, at least for the thinning. It then becomes a matter of keeping in mind the size of bush that you are trying for and cutting out the growth that goes beyond this. This removal should always be done in such a way that the cuts are hidden and a natural looking outline is retained. It may be that hard pruning will eventually need to be repeated but it is not very satisfactory as the only method of pruning used. If that becomes the case many of the shyer flowerers will not have started to flower freely after one cut before they need the next.


Most regrowth is from near the extremity of a cut shoot. This bush couldn’t be cut too low because of browsing deer so already the new growth is hard to reach from the ground. Some thinning has been done, more is needed, and the long extension growth at the top should be shortened in early autumn.

Two more things need to be borne in mind. The first is that you can’t maintain a bush at a particular size if you can’t reach where you need to cut. If the bush is taller than you are, reaching the middle of the top will be difficult. A ladder is not a good platform from which to lean three or four feet across the top of a camellia. A ladder on soft, sloping ground is even worse. Suitable long pruning tools may work but are expensive for only one or two bushes.

Secondly, a “typical” camellia produces an early flush of growth between March and June and a second flush between July and August. The second flush seems almost optional. In 2018’s very hot summer, almost none of the camellias at Mt Edgcumbe made a second flush at all. It is at the tips of the first flush that most flower buds form and if a second flush is produced it is at the expense of flowers. The second flush may be from many shoots on a bush or very few. It is usually the case that no flower buds are carried on the second flush growth which can be removed in whole or part from September onwards without detriment to the plant.

This plant of Debbie was cut back by around two thirds four years ago. The regrowth was thinned and shortened and in September 2018 I cut back all the extension growth made after mid summer. Plenty of flower buds had formed on the shorter, early season growths and these were all left on the bush. Now it is flowering with the flowers well displayed and not hidden amongst foliage and the bush is at least a foot shorter than it would have been if left unpruned.


Pruned in 2015, this bush made several inches of growth in 2015, a lot more in 2016 and less in the hot dry summer of 2018. It has been drawn up by overhead shade too. It should have been shortened in the autumn, cutting the long stems back to side shoots.


This bush has responded well to pruning but has not made long extension growths in mid-late summer. Thinning is the priority here or the stems are liable to flop out under the weight of flowers, rain or snow. Birds love to nest in these dense bushes so timing is critical.

I moved a plant.

Seriously though, I just moved a sizeable camellia sasanqua ‘Tanya’ from my allotment to my garden. Here’s how it went.


Camellia sasanqua ‘Tanya’ on 24/10/2018

We had a good drop of rain a few days ago. I gave it a couple of days to drain away, but a reasonable amount of water in the soil is essential and it is rarely safe to lift plants this size until well into the autumn. There needs to have been a good deal of rain to get the soil below a large evergreen shrub really moist.

I reduced the size of the bush by about a third. This will help reduce stress on the plant while it grows a new root system and made lifting it a bit easier.

I have a narrow bladed, stainless steel spade that I like to use for the next stage, which is to cut round the rootball. I dig straight down all around the plant, just cutting through the soil and roots, without levering on the spade at all. Next I use my old rather worn down spade with a fibreglass handle to take out a wedge of soil outside the vertical cut. I then cut in under the root system at around 45 degrees and start to lever the plant up to break any roots that go straight down below the root ball. I might have had to chop through roots going straight down below the rootball but in this instance didn’t need to.

Once the plant is free, but while it is still in the hole, I chopped some of the soil away to reduce the size and weight of the root ball. My aim was to remove soil where there were insufficient roots to hold the soil in place. Since the root system was not evenly dense all around the plant, I cut more soil away on one side than the other.

I then pulled the plant out of its hole, remove a little more soil from the top and bottome of the rootball, taking care not to damage the base of the stem, before trimming the bits of root sticking out of the rootball flush. It’s hard to say how big a rootball a plant should have. Too small will leave the plant struggling to stay upright and get enough water; too big and moving the plant without the whole lot breaking away becomes very difficult.

Next I lifted the plant onto a sheet of polythene which I drew tightly up around the stem base and tied with polypropylene string. This wrapping needs to be tight as possible to help keep the rootball intact while it is moved.

I lifted the plant into my wheelbarrow and pushed it back the mile or so to my garden in the village. Got a few odd looks. Avoided curbs and potholes.

Dug a hole, popped the plant into it. Too deep, took it out, put a bit of soil back, put the plant back in, filled around the sides, working the soil down with the spade, gave it a good watering. Job’s a good’n. It will take at least two seasons for the root system to be extensive enough to withstand drought as well as it did before being moved, so I’ll be prepared to give it an occasional drench if it is needed. Being a sasanqua variety I didn’t even consider feeding it. Had it been a japonica or x williamsii I still probably wouldn’t feed it until its second season.


Planted in new quarters.

I have lifted several hundred Camellias in this way, some 6 feet or more tall; some to be potted, some replanted in the ground. Very large plants will usually suffer a check but all have grown away after a couple of seasons settling in.

I am in Cornwall, UK. In areas with colder winters it would be better to move them at the end of the winter but they would then have less time to put down roots before conditions became dryer, so watering would be more likely to be needed.