Garden Walk With a Focus - written by Sabine Hotho 

Well over a dozen hardy souls gathered at the Ticket Office on 2nd May for Alpine and Woodland Hortioculturist Peter Watson’s Garden Walk With a Focus on ‘Camellia – Care and Pruning’. It proved an afternoon well worth attending – our understanding of how to look after Camellia changed significantly.

As we heard from Peter, Camellia is a member of the family Theacea, and widely found throughout Eastern and southern Asia. Camellia japonica, with its thousands of cultivars, is the most dominant of the genus. First arriving in Britain from China in the early 18th century, Camellia, with its attractive foliage and wide array of blossoms is now one of our most popular shrubs, providing splashes of colour when little else is in bloom. With consistent moisture and ericaceous compost it is a reliable plant. Whilst the flowers are a feast for the eye, Peter emphasised the attractiveness of the structure of the shrub which allows Camellia to be a key plant and focal point in the garden rather than ‘just a shrub’.

So, much of his talk and hands-on demonstration focused on how to shape the structure rather than on how to optimise bloom and blossom. We looked at a number of Camellia in the Garden, including one that was planted by children from Chernobyl. Some of the Garden’s specimen are in good shape, but others, as Peter pointed out, in need of radical pruning. What an expert horticulturist means by ‘radical pruning’ was then demonstrated in the Temperate House where a richly foliaged tall Camellia changed shape in front of our eyes. Dead, dying and diseased material need to be removed, but consideration must also be given to the direction of growth and consistency of structure. We learned that the best way to prune is to think about the flight path of a blackbird – if the flightpath is unobstructed, we got it right!

Removing crossing branches and twigs and those that are pointing up or inwards is the starting point. Young plants will only need formative pruning. With older plants pruning will help prevent pests and diseases and improve the structure. Peter began the afternoon by saying that pruning is ‘a bit of science, a bit of art’, and by the end of the talk we knew what he meant. Coffee and tea afterwards – enjoyable as always.