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Camellia Disappoints Glendale Resident


QUESTION: I have a well-established camellia facing north in my backyard. Every year it produces hundreds of buds but they never bloom. For the 10 years we've lived here, they have never opened up--they just drop. Can you help?

--C.L., Glendale

ANSWER: This regularly happens to some camellias near the coast, but in Glendale, the problem probably has to do with the variety, especially considering the age of the plant.

Jim Nuccio at Nuccio's Nurseries in Altadena--the camellia specialists--told me that a number of years ago several popular varieties, including a red named 'Eureka,' had this failing--the buds never open, just fall off.

If you have one of these varieties, you have two choices: keep it and enjoy it as a handsome, green shrub that tolerates the lack of sun on the north side of the house but never flowers, or cut it almost to the ground and graft another, floriferous variety to it. You'll need to get a how-to book on grafting to do that.

Near the coast this often happens to camellias with full, many-petaled flowers, such as 'Nuccio's Gem.' The flowers start to open but moisture in the air causes the petals to stick together and the buds abort.

Sprinklers hitting the buds, or rain, can also keep the buds from fully opening, but that doesn't sound like your problem.

Wanted: A Replacement for an Italian Cypress

Q: Our neighbor removed some 30-year-old Italian cypress because they were pushing over a fence and dirtying a swimming pool that's only 3 feet from the fence.

Now we have no privacy, or protection from Santa Ana winds. He has agreed to plant a replacement, so can you recommend something that can grow in a planting space only 2 feet wide, which is fast, low-maintenance, without invasive roots, evergreen and tall enough to block a second-story view?

--S.B., Beverly Hills

A: No pun intended, but that's a tall order. I would not have taken out the cypress, though I know that they can be a little messy when they are that old, but a replacement is going to be hard to find and it will take a while to fill its shoes, especially when it comes to blocking wind--few plants are as tall and narrow and dense as an Italian cypress.

Podocarpus macrophyllus is one tree that several landscape designers and architects mentioned when I posed your question. Del Mar designer Linda Chisari has used it in situations similar to yours and Montrose landscape architect Raymond Hansen commented that it is "soft and fluffy and clean for sure." It is not as stiff or dense as a cypress but it will block views and temper winds.

Hansen noted that it is already 6-feet tall in a 5-gallon can (it can grow to 50 feet), that it is easily clipped into a hedge or simply kept narrow and natural-looking, and that it is tough and trouble-free.

Sometimes called the yew pine for its similarity to English yew, the classic European hedge plant, this Chinese native grows anywhere in Southern California except the coldest parts of the high desert. It's as close as you'll get to the do-everything, Swiss Army knife plant you are searching for. Other possibilities can be found in the "Plants for Hedges and Screens" and "Plants to Use Near Swimming Pools" lists in the "Sunset Western Garden Book" (Sunset Publishing). There are several tall bamboo that might do the trick and eugenias are always a possibility, now that the psyllid is less of a problem.

Complete Soil Overhaul May Be the Solution

Q: I have a 1-foot-by-20-foot-long area next to my garage where I have planted annuals recommended by the nursery 10 or so times and they promptly die. I have changed the soil around each plant as I plant new flowers and I water frequently but not so the soil is mushy. What am I doing wrong?

--R.W, La Mirada

A: I would guess that the soil needs improving--all of it, not just around the new plants. If you only replace the soil around the new plants, they are still growing in a container of sorts. The roots are going to stay in that little pocket of soil and not venture out into the garden soil. They will be very susceptible to drying out, or staying too wet and dying of rots, just like in a container but without the rapid drainage a container and potting soil provide.

The problem will be worse if the bed faces south or west and gets a lot of reflected sun and heat.

Improve all the soil in the bed so it is uniform from one end to the other. Add amendments to a depth of a foot, like those sold by the bag at nurseries, composed mostly of wood products. Two 2.5-cubic-foot bags would not be too much to add to your 1-by-20-foot bed. Spread out, that should make a 3-inch-deep layer of amendment, which you must spade and respade into the soil, until they are thoroughly mixed. Do this job when the soil is moist and crumbles easily, not dry or wet.

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