Originally published December 18, 2014 at 6:15 AM | Page modified December 18, 2014 at 3:49 PM

In the Garden

Winter-blooming camellias liven up the winter garden with attractive, sometimes fragrant flowers backed by glossy dark green foliage. These broad-leaved evergreen shrubs generally range from 4- to 12-feet-tall and come in a variety of forms. They’re easily pruned, making them an excellent choice for small gardens, espalier or containers.

The brightly colored flowers have a unique tropical look and range in color from red to white and practically every shade of pink in between. The individual blooms are short-lived, but the bloom season lasts for months producing an abundance of flowers. The spent blossoms on most varieties tend to fall off on their own, leaving the plant with a clean attractive appearance.

A favorite is Camellia sasanqua ‘Fairy Blush,’ growing to a maximum of 5 feet with deep pink buds opening to reveal dainty, sweetly scented single apple-blossom blooms, perfect for containers.

The darker pink flowering C.s. ‘Marge Miller’ sports a natural weeping form perfect for cascading over a wall. If you have room for an 8-foot tall and wide vigorous grower, hybrid C. x ‘J.C. Williams’ sports beautiful single, soft pink flowers that bloom away merrily in even the most extreme weather.

Finally, my personal favorite winter-blooming camellia is C.s. ‘Yuletide.’ The wonderfully fragrant, brilliant single red blossoms, centered with bright yellow stamens, bloom right on time for Christmas.

Best of all, the blossoms are magnets for the overwintering Anna’s hummingbirds that rely on the pollen as a food source in winter.

Winter-blooming camellias prefer well-drained soil and flower best if they’re located in morning sun. Buy them when they are in bloom in winter and you can be sure to pick the one with the flower color and fragrance you like the best

Pros, cons of biochar

I am receiving an increasing number of questions about using biochar in the home garden.

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance left over from the process of making biofuel. Researchers discovered that, in some situations, it can increase plant growth, improve drought tolerance and increase resistance to root and leaf diseases.

Used as a soil amendment, biochar has been found to improve aeration in poorly drained soils, as well as increase water and nutrient-holding capacity in sandy fast-draining ones. It binds heavy metals and other toxins, preventing their uptake by plants.

Because it takes centuries to decompose, one application should remain active almost indefinitely.

Perhaps the most important benefit offered by biochar is that it increases mycorrhizal activity in soil. Mycorrhizae are fungal networks that work in symbiotic relationships with roots to make increased nutrients available.

Despite its qualities, biochar should be used with caution. For one thing, it raises soil pH. Higher soil pH can be beneficial for many plants such as perennials in the border, but it shouldn’t be applied around acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons.

It is not generally recommended for use in alkaline soils. Biochar, especially if over applied, can also have a detrimental effect on beneficial soil organisms and earthworms.

When first applied, biochar can sometimes cause temporary nutrient deficiencies. Yellowing leaves or stunted growth are signs that a supplemental fertilizer may be required.

General recommendations regarding application rates seem to vary, so if you are going to experiment with this product, it’s probably wise to use the lighter application rates. For a detailed review of the pros and cons of biochar by WSU Extension educator Linda Chalker-Scott, go to wsu.edu and search “biochar home gardener.”

Ciscoe Morris: ciscoe@ciscoe.com “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs weekly on KING 5; check local listings.

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