Camelias vs rhododendrons - which are lower maintenance?

foggysfJanuary 30, 2010

I have an area of part-shade in my back yard, with acidic soil from pine needs that fall regularly. I have two young kids and don't have a lot of time for gardening. I'm trying to decide between camellias vs. rhododendrons to put along my back fence. I had initially decided on camellias because that's what's available right now, but I read that I need to pick up fallen flowers weekly during bloom season. So then I thought about waiting to get rhodies instead, but then I read that rhodies need to be picked off after each bloom. They both sound like a lot of work. Which will be easier? I'm looking for the lowest maintenance option with color. Thank you!

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luis_pr(7b/8a Hurst, TX)

Do not worry. I have azaleas and do not pick up the fallen flowers at all. I also have camellias and pick up all the fallen flowers only when all of them are gone. If you already suffer from Botrytis (Sclerotinia) Flower Blight then do pick up fallen camellia blossoms quickly but otherwise, wait until they have all fallen. This minimizes the maintenance issue. By the way, I would get some of each shrub since they will provide bloomage at different times of the year! In zone 8, you can get evergreen rhodies or evergeeen azaleas.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 7:25PM
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I have had both for many years, and love having both, along with azleas of many kinds.

You might consider having both, depending on how long your fence is, and maybe adding in a few azaleas too. Groupings that include multiple leaf forms, plant forms, textures, and colors or shades of color are particularly interesting to look at, whether or not the plants are blooming. And to have the plant palette repeated farther down along the fence line is ideal. The leaves of many kurumes, gumpos and similar kinds of tiny-leaved azaleas look good with either rhododendrons or camellias. And the shinier leaves of camellias contrast nicely with the flatter colors of both rhododendrons and azaleas.

You might also consider having both or all three just from the standpoint of extending the amount of time you can find a plant in your yard that's blooming to look at and maybe cut to bring inside.

In terms of ease of gardening, that answer is too complicated to give a simple answer and I doubt that many could know for sure what to say for your spot. It depends upon the variety or varieties you're talking about in each of the categories, where you live and what the experiences of people in your area have had with the particular varieties.

One thing to consider would be the tendancy of your area to have long periods of drought, if you have them, and whether you can keep enough water on the plants when that happens. These plants all like good drainage but need regular watering if there's an extended period with low rainfall. In general, camellias might be somewhat more drought tolerant than rhododendrons, but I'm not talking about doing well with lots of blooms, but just surviving. We've had many more rhododendrons die from insufficient watering or have to cut out many branches that died off during a drought than for camellias. Only one camellia might have ever totally succumbed due mainly to a drought. (We've watered during droughts, but couldn't water enough.)

But one rhododendron variety was truly exceptional to this generality, 'Mother of Pearl' and an easy-care plant in every way. Until a car came off the road and mowed down our Mother of Pearl rhododendron tree (yes, a 35-year old rhododendron tree that was gorgeous and fragrant and a heavy, heavy bloomer), we never did anything to it other than to mulch it some and throw a little cottonseed meal its way maybe every few years. I spent a few of its early years doing some deadheading because I knew why it was a good idea, but that got to be a drag so I quit doing it. The rhododendron continued to bloom every year just as well without all the trouble. And the same for all the rhododendrons; over the long haul, they will do fine with no deadheading at all. When your rhododenderons are still really small and trying to get established, ideally you might want to deadhead them, and it's not such a chore when they are small. But it's not essential and you are unlikely to keep it up over too many years.

If you can find either the rhododendron 'Mother of Pearl' or 'Pink Pearl' ('Mother of Pearl' is a sport of 'Pink Pearl') I'd highly recommend those varieties. If drought is a problem in your area, for sure avoid 'Anna Rose Whitney' rhododendron; she is even more drought intolerant than most rhododendrons. If you do decide to get rhododendrons, you might link up to the American Rhododendron Society's website and find your way to the links of nearby rhododendron societies' recommended varieties. Those are only _some_ varieties that might work well for you, but it's a start. If you live in the Southeast, consider contacting Van Veen Nursery (Portland, Oregon) for their catalog or checking out their online information. At least a few years back they had a list of varieties that they thought tended to do well in the warm areas of the Southeast. Looking at that list, I couldn't help but notice that the rhododendrons we'd had that died were not on that heat-tolerant list.

I know less about camellias than rhododendrons; we have experience with fewer of them and with fewer varieties. I may have deadheaded a young camellia, but the one I'm thinking of died anyway. (Soil should have had better elevation and more pine needles added, probably... but you live and learn, don't you?) Most all of our camellias have simply survived and bloomed in a state of near total neglect. They were planted in organically rich soil, mulched, and had some cottonseed meal thrown their way once in awhile. That's all, unless you count cutting some flowers as deadheading. And, of course, we did some watering some of the time. Most of our camellias have been growing in too much shade, but they all bloom some and some bloom heavily under those conditions. Like rhododendrons or anything else, each variety is different and has different needs and preferences, and some are more forgiving than others. I noticed in reading through Jennifer Trehane's wonderful book, "Camellias", that some varieties are mentioned as being particularly easy to grow. You might want to use a resource like that to help you decide on specific varieties.

A couple of our camellias were planted too close to an oak tree, so they don't bloom heavily and their roots don't have an ideal space for expanding either. But when so many ajacent azaleas died in the drought a couple of years ago, neither of those camellias died. One had a single branch that needed cutting out, I think. They are both huge, beautiful plants now. So if you luck onto varieties that aren't particularly finicky and tend to do well in your area, you can get by with some beginner's mistakes with camellias. I've never picked up a spent bloom from the ground and wouldn't dream of doing that.

One thing I'd suggest, if it's possible, is to work on the soil in a wide area, wider than the actual spot where you're going to plant. Where we've had the best luck with rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias, the heavy clay around here has been organically enriched and modified for better drainage, mounding it up high over a wider area than just where a single plant was going to go. If you do a good enough job on the soil at planting time, you won't need and don't want to chemically fertilize any of these plants; just throw out more organic stuff (like cottonseed meal) along with the mulch to let it break down slowly over time.

Best of luck,

    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 8:48PM
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