“Groundwork” column for Dec. 23, 2012

Camellias are almost indispensable in the Southern landscape and are well loved for their large colorful winter blooms from December to April. Their shiny evergreen foliage also stays attractive through the winter.

Even more, as beautiful as they are in the ground, camellias adapt happily to life in containers and are particularly impressive grown that way. (They make great Christmas gifts.)

Growing camellias in containers allows gardeners to cultivate them where ground space is not available, such as an apartment balcony or a deck or patio. It also allows you to move a plant around to different locations — bringing it to a prominent position while its flowers are at their best and placing it in a more out-of-the-way spot at other times.

Their cold hardiness means you can leave them outside through the winter, except for the rare occasions when temperatures go below 20 degrees because the root ball might freeze.

The type of pot you choose is as much a matter of taste as what is best for the camellias. Black plastic pots from the nursery work fine but look a bit too utilitarian for most landscapes. Decorative plastic in muted colors, terra cotta, fiberglass, glazed pottery and wood all make suitable containers (although termites make wood a questionable choice). Whatever container you choose, make sure the drainage holes are adequate.

The drainage also is affected by the potting mix you use. Do not use garden soil. Instead, choose fast-draining soil mixes specifically blended for use in containers.

Eventually, a camellia will require a container about 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep as it reaches maturity. This takes a number of years, however, and it is best to grow camellias in smaller pots that are appropriate to their size, gradually shifting them to larger containers as they outgrow the ones they are in. The camellia is not one of those plants that will suffer the minute it gets a bit pot-bound, but you shouldn’t allow it to remain in that state for more than a year or two. Otherwise, the growth will be stunted and flowers few.

When repotting, shift the plant into a new pot only a few inches larger. Planting into an excessively larger pot creates a situation where over-watering and root rot are more likely to occur.

Do not plant it any deeper than it was growing in its original container. Also, the level of the soil should be an inch or two lower than the rim of the pot to facilitate watering.

You do need to water regularly, even daily, during hot, summer weather. Camellias are likely to drop their flower buds if you allow them to become too dry before watering. Fertilization is best accomplished with a soluble fertilizer for acid-loving plants applied once or twice a month during the spring and summer. Or use a slow-release fertilizer applied once in the spring.

When you think about plants in containers to embellish your front entrance, patio, courtyard, balcony or deck, don’t forget the beautiful camellia.

Master Gardener?

Want to become a Master Gardener? Visit http://www.lsuagcenter.com and click Research Stations, then Burden Center and EBR Master Gardeners or contact Bob Souvestre, bsouvestre@agcenter.lsu.edu or (225) 763-3990. Applications are being accepted for the East Baton Rouge Parish program at Burden. Deadline is Jan. 17. Class size is limited.

Bulb time

Spring flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and hyacinths add lots of color and visual enjoyment to early spring flower beds. These bulbs are among the first flowers to appear in spring and signal that cold weather is on the way out and warmer days are just around the corner.

In south Louisiana, spring-flowering bulbs can be planted late December to early January. There is no such thing as a bargain bulb. Buy only the best, which means the biggest, firm, blemish-free bulbs available.

A soil pH of 6.0 to 6.8 is best for most bulbs. Incorporate lime if a soil test indicates a need for it. In the absence of a soil test, add 1 to 2 pounds of 5-10-10, 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed space. Incorporate lime, fertilizer and any soil amendments thoroughly and to a depth of 4 to 6 inches.

Planting depth and spacing are also very important for the success of bulbs. A general rule of thumb for planting depth (from the top of the bulb to the soil surface) is two to three times the greatest diameter for bulbs 2 inches or more in diameter, and three to four times the greatest diameter for smaller bulbs.

Spacing will vary from 1 or 2 inches to as much as several feet. When spacing bulbs, consider how much space each plant needs. Also consider the landscape effect. The flower display is most effective when bulbs are planted in large clusters in confined areas rather than in evenly spaced lines or sparse plantings throughout a large area. Plant bulbs upright and press the soil firmly around them. Rhizomes and tuberous roots are usually planted on their sides. Water the beds thoroughly to help settle the soil and mulch to help moderate soil temperature fluctuations and for weed prevention.

Got a gardening question? Write to Bob Souvestre, horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter, at Burden Center, 4560 Essen Lane, Baton Rouge, LA 70809, or email to bsouvestre@agcenter.lsu.edu, or call Master Gardeners at (225) 763-3990.