Q: I planted last November in a raised planter three of these camellias. Two of the three are dying. The leaves dried from the top down. There are still some leaves alive/pliable on the bottom of the shrub. The third camellia is doing well. They get morning sun and are shaded most of the rest of the day.
My local nursery told me to deep water them, as they don’t like our soil in Tucson. I am currently continuing to water once a week but more deeply. Is there any chance of saving them at this point?
A: Camellias are not ideal plants for the desert but you can grow them if you are careful. The soil here is too alkaline for these plants so they are best grown in containers or raised beds where you can keep the soil pH on the acidic side. They also need well-drained soil with a good amount of organic matter. They don’t survive in direct sun, which may partially explain the dried leaves. Even morning sun might be too much, depending on how long they are exposed. They do better in filtered shade and protected from western exposure as you are doing. The watering advice you received is correct in the amount if the soil is drying out that quickly, although watering does nothing to affect soil pH. Plants in containers and raised beds often dry out quicker than those planted in the ground so you might need to monitor the situation more closely to determine how often to water. Small containers often need water every day.
To save your remaining plant, I recommend you make sure it is not receiving too much sun, double check the soil moisture and adjust your irrigation accordingly, and amend the soil with sulphur to lower the pH as needed. Testing your soil at a reputable lab will help determine how much sulphur to add to reach the desired pH value.
Peter L. Warren is the Forest Health Program Coordinator for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. Questions, photos and videos may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org