Nurturing a ‘problem child’

Posted on August 8, 2010

Just as every family has a Black Sheep, so every garden has a Problem Child. That plant that refuses to do its thing, whether that be fruit or flower. We haven’t had too many here at the Fibro, having inherited someone else’s garden. In the Big Smoke, we had to create a garden out of a patch of winter grass, a clump of bamboo and a family of Agave pups. Here, we moved in to a garden with a number of established trees and shrubs, most of which work brilliantly, giving us colour and flowers all year round.

Except for one, a shrubby little camellia with a tight, closed expression.

When we arrived in December 2008, I didn’t think much of it. After all, twas the season to be jolly, not the season for camellias. So I gave it a ‘you could be bigger’ once-over and moved on to revelling in the roses, which were blooming at the time.

It caught my eye six months later, when I noticed it was more or less the same size as when we’d arrived. Given that it’s situated along the Western fence, with full access to glorious morning sunshine all year round, this just didn’t seem right. And so a frenzy of feeding, watering and mulching began. That should do it, I thought, dusting off my hands and fully expecting a bonanza of blooms come mid-winter.

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Lots of little buds of promise that just failed to deliver. I still had no idea what colour the flowers even were! I was unaccountably disappointed. I also had a Project.

And so, over the summer, I fed and watered regularly, mulched religiously, weeded fervently. I popped out to give it little pep talks. I used a machete to ward off the ever-marching, ever-encroaching South African Daisies.

I allowed myself to hope.

A couple of months ago, I played my trump card, dousing the poor unsuspecting plant in a deluge of compost (I finally had enough – for one plant). And then I waited.

I waited while the salvia sprang to purple beauty – and died back. While the camellia in the backyard, neglected and forlorn, produced a dazzling display of hot pink, saucer-sized flowers. While the camellia hedge across the road grew so heavy under the weight of its red blossoms that it threatened to topple over.

Meanwhile, along the Western fence, nothing. Buds of promise bursting out all over – but we’d been there before and I wasn’t going to get excited.

And then, yesterday, not just one bloom, but two. Waxy. Striped pink-and-white. Awe-inspiring in their unfurling perfection.

I was so excited I actually gave a squeal of joy, calling The Builder out for inspection. We cheered. We took photos (see above).

We are so easily pleased.

Now that I fully expect my little shrub to produce the full complement of camellias, it’s time to turn my eye to other projects. Specifically, the Japanese Maple, which seems to be so indignant at finding itself in Fibrotown that it’s refusing to grow. Envision a small tree with its branches on its hips, and you get the picture.

It’s in for a good talking to, that maple.


  1. Crazy Garden Lady

    Loved the imagery of the small tree with it’s branches on it’s hips – made me think of pre-teen girls in a huff – does it roll it’s eyes as well?

  2. MultipleMum

    A wonderful post full of ‘flowery’ (sorry) language. The comments have been most helpful for my own gardening skill development. Thankyou all!

    Now can you just do the post on the steps in planting a veggie patch that I have been hinting at?

  3. allison tait

    See, this is what I love about blogging – so much useful information, and all for free!

    @Jamie, I was hoping you’d drop by with pearls of wisdom – I will keep up the nurturing and try to get over the pouting from the Maple. I know that it is homesick.

    @ImperfectlyMe – also excellent advice! Thank you very much.

    As for working out a recipe for ‘kid compost’ @YvetteVignando and @Ofthesea – I’m working on it! Could be worth millions!

  4. Jamie

    Allison, another way to look at your camellia and your maple is to think of them as unwilling migrants beamed ‘Star Trek’ style into a new land and wondering “Where the bloody hell am I?”.

    Your maple is a migrant from a much colder place, and it’s also trying to make sense of Fibrotown’s soil, too. It’s asking questions such as “wot, no frosts?” and “how acid is this soil, sheesh! Get me outta here.” Persist, but it really would be happier a couple of thousand feet higher up and another 50km inland. As it gets older, it will sulk less and grow better, but it needs patience given its tough assignment. I’d also try some Seasol once a month, which is not a plant food but a soil conditioner. It helps stressed trees grow more roots, and this might get the rest of the plant growing.

    As for your camellia, it’s saying: “I hope you do know that I am from Eastern Asia, and I can tell from the pink fibro house nearby that I am definitely not in Eastern Asia. Besides, the menu’s terrible. That common strumpet of a camellia flowering its head off over the other side of the yard is just a ruffian. It flowers everywhere it goes. I’m a sensitive artist. I need understanding. But no, sorry, I’ll give you few clues. Apart from this.

    “Keep on doing what you’re doing, you’re on the right track. And next year, when I start to show flower buds, do more of the feeding and watering and mulching, especially the watering, no dry periods. Back where I come from, it rains at the time of year when we set our flower buds. But that’s it for clues.”

  5. Imperfectly Me

    Hi Allison,
    Glad to hear the problem child is at least pretending to co operate…must be quite clever to know not to push you too far!
    My only gardening wisdom is that if the ground wasn’t prepared properly (ie soil loosened and aerated a bit) then it will always struggle as it’s not getting enough air flow…so next time you want to give it some TLC, get a fork (not the kitchen variety) and give the soil around the roots a few gentle pokes. Camelias also cope well with moving around (at the right time of year) so if it fails to thrive you may want to dig it out and give the soil some TLC (as above + feeding) and then replant it.

    Pink Patent Mary Janes may also want to second guess your better half and ask him if he dug a trench to plant the murraya’s as individual holes can lead to unever growth…

    Do I sound like a know it all? Hope not – just digging (excuse the pun) into my memory bank from a horticulture course I did when #2 child was a toddler and I needed some mental stimulation (gardening is such a great stress reliever!!!).

    Great post as usual!!

  6. Stacia

    The plant that grows the best in our yard is an interloper from the house behind us. But it’s something very exotic, a tropical burst of orange sunshine, compared to our scrawny little perennials. Do you airmail compost??

  7. Ofthesea

    I’m with The Cape on the Corner… what’s a Fibro?

    Yvette, to really follow the metaphor you’d have to drown a problem child in compost to make them work. Goodness knows i would have LOVED to do that to one or two in my teaching days.

    And my gardening two cents: to ensure a plentiful crop from our “cas” tree (a Costa Rican type of guava, if it helps), one of us went out every day and kicked it in the shins. Tough love works sometimes!

  8. PinkPatentMaryJanes

    So pretty and totally worth the wait and attention. Camelia’s are notoriously slow-growing though, the only reason I let my husband talk me into a murraya hedge over a camelia. However, months later the murraya haven’t grown a centimetre – at least I’d have one-or-two camelia flowers by now.

    Great post- as always.

  9. Maxabella

    Hi Al, this piece was so exquisitely written that after I finished it I went back to the start to read it all again. You are a truly gifted writer.

    I also loved Yvette’s comment above. What a lovely way to look at it.


  10. Yvette Vignando

    Being a closet poet and metaphor lover, I like to think that this story can be applied by a teacher to a ‘black sheep’ or ‘problem child’ in a classroom. Some optimism, determination, care, special attention could also turn out an awe-inspiring child unfurling in perfection. By the way, we have one of those hands on hips maples – let me know if you find the answer! You’ve inspired me to get out there in the dirt for a half hour today.

  11. Lucy

    Al, we have an adopted camelia. A camelia hedge, no less. Adopted, as in I can take no credit for its lushness.

    We also have a Japanese Maple.

    But the one that needs the talking to is the Jacaranda.It doesn’t grow, it blooms only in small patchy patches.

    I need your pep talk script.

  12. the cape on the corner

    i am glad that your patience (or was it impatience) paid off! your garden sounds lovely! i haven’t heard of a fibro before, what do you mean exactly?

    thanks so much for coming by the cape on the corner, i truly appreciate your comment and readership. it’s good to know i am not the only “clean” cook who somehow ends up messy. i honestly don’t know how it happens!

  13. allison tait

    Thanks! I might need it. We have the same amount of luck with lavender as you apparently do – have just put some new ones under the roses and now I’m just waiting for them to turn up their toes. Sigh. But I’ll always have my camellia… I hope.

  14. Shauna

    Its gorgeous Al. I went through a camelia stage about ten years ago (I measure everything in life to kids ages) and like you, they were adopted camelias. I never had quite the same luck when i planted my own. Ive been through hydrangea, rose, daisies, brunfelsia, lavender (so many diff types) and god knows what else. Now im into a native plant stage. The other day i was spending money on some natives and went through memory lane as i saw all the plants of my past in the aisle. Only this time they were all alive and healthy. Good luck

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