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Eileen Hart's Camellias

Eileen Hart has the most and the most beautiful camellias most of us will ever see.

She been a Master Gardener since 1979 and is one of only nine in Hillsborough County awarded the rank of Master Gardener Emeritus. A gardener all her life from a gardening family, she has wide experience with many kinds of plants, especially the ones that thrive in the shade of her two-acre garden in Odessa. She is also one those people who makes you feel like you can do anything.

While most gardens are showing winter raggedness if not outright damage, hers is at its peak through the winter when her more than 400 varieties of camellias take their turns in fantastic bloom. The rest of the county's Master Gardeners and a few stowaways recently soaked up the beauty and inspiration.

Some had heard her say at a recent library clinic that the reason she started growing camellias was because her mother-in-law from Georgia said they wouldn't grow here.

Eileen has found that the mid to late season varieties seem to do best in Florida because our hot weather can sometimes cause fall bloomers to fade quickly.

While it can take 15 years for plants to grow as large as some of hers, Eileen has recently been air layering large new starts for her aunt who is 87 and has decided she wants to line her driveway with camellias.

"If you take cuttings or make grafts, you don't get bloom for two years," Eileen says, "but with air layers you can get a new plant in about three months and it keeps on blooming through the process without skipping a beat."

She rubs off the bark and the green cambium layer down to the white underneath for two inches all the way around a piece of branch about the thickness of a thumb so that branch thinks it is dying. Then she puts a handful of damp sphagnum moss around the wound and covers it with aluminum foil. Three months later she has a new plant from the old.

Air layering cannot hurt the plant. If it doesn't root, it is because the wound healed over, so even a novice need not be afraid to try.

"I air layer all the branches off of the bottom of all my plants and give them away," she says. Most of her camellias are small trees rather than shrubs and very open so that it sometimes seems there are more blooms than leaves. "They seem to take on that natural open form on their own and as small trees, I can plant other things under them," she says.

With sharp pruners, she cut away a finished air layer, opened the foil to show all the healthy roots, then closed it again and gave the 30" plant full of blooms and buds to the first taker. "Take it home and prune off the lower branches about halfway up. Plant it in a pot and don't put it in the ground until the rainy season starts," she said.

Beside camellias, Eileen has wonderful collections of ferns, begonias, aroids and bromeliads. How does she manage to take such good care of so many special plants? She shrugs off the effort. "Much of it takes minimal maintenance because of the shade," she says.

She works full time as a medical technologist. The day after she opened her garden she was going to Douglas, Georgia, to one of the 10 to 12 camellias shows she enters or judges every year. "I try to take as many blooms as possible so people can see the different kinds," she says, and knows all of hers by name.

"Eileen is one of those low-key, high energy people who make you feel good instead of guilty," said one of the visitors.

While there is no sign of it now, Eileen said the fall storms had caused other garden work to wait while they cleared away the branches dropped from their many large trees. The storms also spread around more of the tea scale that she usually finds mostly on the undersides of branches close to the ground--another reason why she prunes for tree shape. She sprays once or twice a year with oil to combat the scale. The main spraying will be soon before the new leaves start growing.

"You must not have any weeds," said one visitor.

Eileen smiled. Everyone has weeds. "Usually I pull them out in bunches and throw them on the driveway (an unpaved path through the camellias) and run over them a few time, but I didn't do that since I knew you were coming," she said.

"I spread a lot of mulch. But nothing is in order here because the grandchildren come first. They help me. I pay them $1.50 a bale for spreading mulch and then we go to the flea market where they spend their money on toy cars or dolls."

As the Master Gardeners left, they looked back and saw one streak of flame vine growing up into one of Eileen's trees.

Professor Sargent, perhaps the most gorgeous camellia in bloom in early February, is a clone from her fatherís favorite plant.

Now's the time to...

  • Eileen Hart feeds the her camellias in the spring with a special blueberry fertilizer, 12-4-8 that she gets from Gro Mor in Plant City and again in early summer. In fall they get 2-10-10 to make the best blooms. She treats them with cygon once a year, the only pesticide she uses. She recommends Epsom salts of magnesium sulfate for camellias and most other plants.
  • "Some people are now air layering by cutting open one side of a pot down to the hole in the bottom, inserting the branch through the hole, filling the pot with moist moss, and stapling the pot back together," Eileen Hart says. "And one man I know takes layers of much larger branches, up to 1 Ĺ inches in diameter, but those take much longer, up to two years to form a good root ball."