Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for my sick camellia? It was doing much better before we poured concrete 2 feet from the base and installed drip irrigation.
Tom Jones, Davis
Camellia expert Don Lesmeister: This plant appears to be an older plant that is in need of a good thinning. This entails removing all the smaller dead branches (those without leaves). This can easily be accomplished by just breaking them off by hand. Clippers or shears usually aren’t needed until the branches are pencil size or larger. This removal will make your plant healthier.
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At this time of year, during the growing season, camellia plants annually drop around 30 percent of their leaves. While doing this, the leaves turn all sorts of unusual colors, like the orange-colored leaf (shown in the center of the reader’s photo). Stresses – such as lack of water, excessive water, disturbing of roots – can add to the amount of leaf drop. This leaf drop is just Mother Nature correcting the situation and usually nothing to be concerned with.
The yellow leaves shown are either ready to drop or indicate a lack of iron. The darker colors on the tips of the leaves, like the black and brown ones, indicate a burn of some type, usually salts, alkaline or over-fertilizing. Burn in the center of the leaves is from excessive sun.
From the information provided, it appears that the roots of this plant were disturbed while doing the concrete work. Concrete is alkaline, and some of the wet mixture was probably absorbed by the deeper roots or dry powder on the feeder roots (those closest to the surface and the most important).
Camellias are acid-loving plants and the alkaline works contrary to their needs. The drip system, unless excessively providing water, shouldn’t have created the current problems.
A general rule is not to fertilize an unhealthy plant, but if this plant has not been fertilized, I would suggest a very light dose of liquid fertilizer with a low nitrogen percentage such as Liquid Fish (5-1-1) applied at one-half recommended strength. Also, remove any concrete leftovers around the plant and on the top of the soil without disturbing the feeder roots.
Camellias are generally forgiving, but the two worst things you can do is to overwater and/or overfertilize them. If the above recommendations are followed, the plant should have recovered significantly for next year’s growing season.
Don Lesmeister of the Sacramento Camellia Society is an award-winning camellia grower and longtime expert.
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