Gardening: Meet my Debbie

IN THE PINK: Spring likes to make the most of camellias and their peony-like flowers.
IN THE PINK: Spring likes to make the most of camellias and their peony-like flowers.
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David Overend reveals how he fell head over heels for a China girl who put down roots in deepest Wales.

A trip to Bodnant is always something of an expedition; firstly, it’s quite a long way to Wales; secondly, you never know what the weather is going to offer. But it’s always a journey well worth making. Bodnant is special, very special.

And that’s where I met Debbie. Not the lovely Debbie McGee, but the lovely Debbie Camellia, a vigorous evergreen shrub of open growth, with peony-form double, rose-pink flowers to 12cm in width.

What more can you ask for? Not a lot, as the unlovely Mr McGee (aka Paul Daniels) used to say, but Debbie the camellia provides her own magic in woodland and acidic soils, in a site sheltered from cold, dry winds and early morning sun where her buds and flowers could be damaged by cold winds and late frosts.

It’s now April and the world is awakening. Or at least some of the world is awakening; some bits have been wide awake for weeks. Which is why camellias like Debbie are flowering and doing their best to show us that spring really is here, and if it’s not, it’s just around the corner waiting to leap out and do what spring likes to do.

And spring likes to make the most of camellias, which come mainly from China, They are relatively easy to cultivate, but they thrive best where the summers are warm and the winters are cold.

They also love moist but well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Waterlogging is a killer. When you have to water, use rainwater; tap water is usually alkaline and will turn a camellia’s leaves yellow. Then they’ll drop off.

Camellias can be planted any time of the year (preferably from mid-October to November and from mid-March to mid-April, so the time is almost perfect) provided they are treated properly and mulched. They are shallow-rooted plants, so a large, deep planting hole should be provided.

Camellias do best in sheltered positions in light shade or where they get only morning sun.

The plants will tolerate exposed sunny sites but the flowers won’t. Dense shade will promote lank growth and reduce flowering. Too sunny, and the flowers will burn and drop prematurely. A site that is exposed to strong winds is definitely not recommended.

Which is why “Debbie” has been planted where the winds are kind and the soil is ideal. Magic...

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