Why I love Camellias

February is a cold and gloomy month for many across the country, even in South Carolina. That’s why spring flowers are on my mind, and I’m sure I’m not the only gardener! Luckily, we don’t have to wait until the weather warms up to enjoy one of the best blooms of the year – Camellias! Whether you’re looking for flowers in late Fall or late winter, there’s a camellia that will brighten your garden. Even when these plants aren’t in bloom they bring a beautiful dense screen of glossy leaves.

It’s no secret that southern gardeners love Camellias. Most of the year, you wouldn’t know they’re there because the deep green foliage fades in the background, but it’s impossible to miss them in full bloom. The peak blooming season only lasts for a month or 2, but you can stagger varieties based on bloom time to extend the flower season in your garden for months. Camellias are native to Asia, but their blooms are so beloved, it’s the state flower of Alabama! The most common flowering camellia species are C. japonica and C. sasanqua, and each has hundreds of varieties to choose from!

Camellia Japonica

Camellia japonica is arguably the most beautiful bloomer in the genus because it offers the largest flowers. Japonica typically bloom in late winter or spring. In the south the blooms start as early as December and fade in April. Up north, they start in March and bloom until May, and it varies widely depending on the cultivar you choose. Most japonicas have larger leaves than sasanqua and spent flowers fall to the ground completely intact instead of petal by petal like sasanqua. Make sure to give these plenty of room, eventually they can grow 20 feet tall and wide, but are slow growing and take a while to get there.

There are seemingly endless varieties to choose from cultivated for their growth habits, and bloom shape, size, and color. Some blooms focus on the showy yellow stamens, others are fragrant and have a peony shape like “Kramer’s Supreme”. “Professor Sargent” flowers are really complex with a row of flat petals on the edge that jumble into a ball toward the middle. Camellia japonica ‘Hakuhan-kujaku’ is on my wish list because the leaves are narrow and long like a willow tree and the flowers hang like a lantern. The most cold tolerant camellia varieties belong to the japonica species.

Northern growers will have much more luck with japonica than sasanqua! There are some selections that can survive temperature drops briefly below 0F. The flower buds are less cold tolerant than the plant itself and might fail to survive a particularly harsh winter. Ironically in the south, japonica blooms are more prone to freeze damage because of their tendency to bloom during the coldest months of the year in lower latitudes.

Camellia Sasanqua

Camellia sasanqua are known as the “fall blooming camellia”. The leaves are much smaller than japonica and the flowers are less showy. These shrubs have a lot of “flower power” and can bring just as much color as their cousins. The bloom season is much earlier in the season (October through February). I’ve noticed these flowers are less prone to freeze damage than japonica, but the plant is less cold tolerant and typically won’t survive temperatures in the single digits. Definitely a trade off! Japonica and sasanqua both prefer protection from afternoon sunshine, but sasanqua does appear to be more sun tolerant. Sasanqua is often the victim of bad pruning practices from landscapes who decide to prune these plants in fall right before they bloom – taking off most of the flower buds as a result.

Let’s Dive Deeper

Camellias are incredibly low maintenance, but it takes a lot to elevate a beautiful camellia flower into an award winning flower. That extra attention is part of the fun for the experts I met with when I reported at the 2019 Camellia flower show at Kanapaha Botanical Garden in Gainesville, FL. The blooms were huge at the event. Growers have a special way of doing this. They select the best camellia buds early in the season and inject the site with a growth hormone so the shrubs can focus on making a really impressive bloom for the competition.

Meteorologist Alex Calamia reports for WCJB on the 2019 Camellia show at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, FL.

Camellia blooms come in red, white, pink, and a blend of colors in between, but the future is looking bright – and I mean that literally because there are attempts to develop a yellow camellia. Yellow is a very rare color in the world of camellias. Camellia nitidissima was discovered less than 100 years ago, and it’s the only yellow blooming camellia being grown internationally. The species has very tiny flowers, but one day larger yellow camellia flowers may be available through selective breeding and hybridization.

I’ve talked a lot about Camellia flowers in this post, but the most special thing about Camellias are their leaves. It’s the reason we have tea! Camellia sinensis is known as the tea plant because nearly every tea is made from it. Sweet tea is an iconic drink of the south, but the only commercial tea plantation in the United States is in South Carolina on Wadmalaw Island. Camellia sinensis doesn’t have showy blooms like other members of the genus, but I can’t imagine the world without them.

My Camellia Experience

I grew up in New York where camellias were (and still are) a rare site. My grandmother on Long Island had a massive Camellia tree that I talked about in the video posted above. Her camellia shrub was 15 feet tall and over 50 years old. People would ring her doorbell in April asking what kind of rose she had. Of course unlike roses, camellias keep their leaves all year long, bloom earlier, and are much bigger.

New York City and most of Long Island is a USDA zone 7, which means the coldest winter temperatures can fall between 0F and 10F. That’s warm enough to grow camellias, but some camellia varieties are less reliable than others because of the duration of cold in New York. I believe my grandmother’s camellia is “Kumasaka”. I’ve also had luck with “April Rose” and “Kramer’s Supreme” in my parent’s yard on Staten Island. We had a Herme Camellia for more than a decade, but a few winters with near 0F temperatures eventually killed that variety. It was also in a full sun location that it didn’t appreciate. Camellia sasanqua “Long Island Pink” did not survive long term in my parent’s yard. We believe that shrub was in too much shade. There are other sasanqua in my parents’ neighborhood on Staten Island that are very healthy, but they are always less impressive than the japonicas this far north.

I don’t have a yard of my own in South Carolina, so I’m enjoying my camellia as a potted plant. Unfortunately, there aren’t any dwarf camellias, so eventually these will have to be planted in the ground. “Here for a good time, not a long time” is an appropriate expression for potted camellias. They’re a great temporary potted plant because even young camellia plants produce a lot of blooms. I’m growing R.L. Wheeler which has huge flowers and beautiful red and white markings. In South Carolina, this cultivar starts blooming in late January/early February and blooms through March. When summer comes, the camellia is a great pot filler for some hanging annual flowers.

Debunking “Moon Phase Gardening”

Do you believe a full moon can bring out the worst in people? Well there are some gardeners that think the moon can affect plants too. The idea is called moon phase gardening and the belief is the moon’s gravity can affect the way plants process water and nutrients. A little research and you might find yourself believing the practice is based on some solid science, but it’s not! Here are a few of the rules behind moon phase gardening and the science that says to avoid taking this gardening trend too seriously.

Meteorologist Alex Calamia debunks some of the claims behind “moon phase gardening”.

Myth 1: Plant certain crops during certain moon phases.

The moon is our closest neighbor in the sky and perhaps that’s how the idea behind moon gardening started in the first place. Moon garden folklore goes back as far as the Mayans. There’s a belief the moon’s position in the sky has an impact on living things. 

Moon phases have an affect on some aspects of our world, particularly ocean tides. The highest high tides and lowest high tides happen during the new and full moon phases because the moon and the sun are lined up. During these two moon phases, the moon’s gravity isn’t lowered by the sun’s gravity, in fact, it’s enhanced by it! Oceans make up more than 70% of the Earth’s surface and have a vast surface area so even something so minor like the moon’s gravity can bulge the surface of the ocean upward.

The idea behind “moon phase gardening”

Gardeners using moon phase gardening may explain the moon’s gravity can effect the water flow inside plants too. That’s why people planting based on moon phases say to plant leafy greens when the moon is waxing (getting closer to full moon), root crops when the moon is waning (leaving the full moon phase), or plant leafy greens during the new moon. This idea is flawed because water doesn’t passively ebb and flow in plants like it does in the ocean. 

“If that were true, you’d have sap moving up and down twice a day on plants. That would just wreak havoc on their system”, Clemson extension agent Jackie Jordan explains.

Unlike the ocean, plants are constantly defying even the Earth’s strong gravity. Each plant contains hormones that tell seeds to sprout roots down and shoots up using cues from gravitational forces. As plants grow they develop a network of structures called the xylem and the phloem. The Xylem transports water upward, and the phloem transports nutrients from photosynthesis throughout the plant. When theses structures aren’t doing their job effectively (like hot and humid days or after a damaging freeze), plants wilt. There’s no observable change depending on moon phases and the moon’s gravity is so insignificant to a plant that it’s not possible for moon phases to affect plants in this way.

Myth 2: A full moon helps plants grow faster

It’s true that plants get an extra boost when days are longer or brighter. Alaska is known for producing mega sized crops each summer because of the nearly endless sunlight and some plants can live for years off the florescent lights in an office building. The light in both these instances is a lot more significant than even the brightest full moon which, according to Jackie Jordan, is 400-thousand times dimmer than full sunlight. Compared to even a street light, the full moon doesn’t have enough light to affect plants noticeably, but Jordan mentions artificial light does have an affect on plants that require shorter days to begin blooming – like chrysanthemum and poinsettias.

Full moons do historically have an important role in gardens because farmers used to rely on these brighter nights to work in the fields. This is why the last full moon of the summer is called the “Harvest moon” and many other full moon phases have names deriving from farming.

Plumeria flowers on my porch during a full moon

Planting at the right time is important

When it comes to moon phase gardening, experts agree “It might be something fun, but I’d say you’re better off if you pay attention to things that really do matter, temperature, humidity”, Jackie Jordan explains. Moon phase gardening limits gardeners to only a few days each month for planting and harvesting certain crops. This is detrimental for crops that need to be harvested almost daily. Peas need to be harvested constantly, otherwise the pods will become hard and inedible and the plant will stop producing new pods because it’s already finished it’s purpose – reproduction.

Make no mistake, timing is everything, but instead of focusing on moon phases, gardeners should pay close attention to the weather and the climate needs an individual plant requires for success. The Clemson Extension has a great resource on their website for gardeners in South Carolina that need some advice about when to plant certain crops to avoid damaging weather or insects. The weather can change in an instant so when the timing is right, take some time to start planting!

These plants are the most cold tolerant for winter gardens

I’ve been so busy in the garden the past few months, and I think I earned a little break. I still want to see plants though – that’s where the winter garden comes in! Unlike the summertime, there’s no need to worry about watering, bugs, weeding or fertilizing this time of the year. Talk about a relief! The only variable in the winter garden is extreme cold, and that affects some plants more than others. So I decided this year I’m not going to cover my beautiful greens with a frost cloth so I can see which plants are the most cold tolerant and ultimately the lowest maintenance. I’ve made some interesting observations that will help any gardener extend their growing season with little effort!

Gardening isn’t just for summertime

When I grew up in New York, I thought gardens could only be productive during the warm and frost free days of summer. I had no idea how incredible winter gardening is until I moved to South Carolina and witnessed it for myself. Plants really struggle in the hot and humid weather here during the summer time, and the plants that can handle our weather often succumb to fungus and bugs. Winter in South Carolina is far from frost free (the average winter morning in Columbia drops into the 30s!), and yet I’m growing dozens of plants. Whether you’re a southern gardener looking to garden during the cool months, or a northern gardener looking to extend the growing season on the frosty fringes of spring and fall, here’s my breakdown on what plants are most reliable.

The winter garden at 25F

Some lettuce varieties are unreliable when temperatures drop below 25F. Romaine seems to be particularly sensitive. These plants began to show signs of damage at 25 degrees and at 20 degrees, I lost about 70% of the romaine lettuce. Cauliflower and broccoli plants survived temperatures down to 25F, but the budding florets were destroyed at these temperatures. Last year I covered the lettuce and cauliflower with frost cloths at 25 degrees and there was no damage.

The lettuce and cauliflower plants in milder parts of the yard survived 20F (our coldest morning so far this winter) without protection. Bibb lettuce had no damage even in the cold parts of my yard. That was a really pleasant surprise! Some of the fancy leaf lettuce varieties (I was not given a cultivar name) also survived our coldest morning without any problem. There are some varieties of lettuce that are reportedly reliable down to 10F temperatures. That should give a lot of gardeners up north (and here in the south) some hope!

What happened at 20F

Cauliflower and broccoli plants received a lot of damage during our coldest morning of the winter so far which was officially 20F in Columbia, SC. A few of my broccoli and cauliflower plants survived the deep freeze, but most appear to be a total loss.

I’m happy to report many plants survived our coldest morning so far this winter without any issues. Kale, cabbage, pansies, arugula, and cardoon suffered no foliage burn. Parsley and cilantro had a little cosmetic damage, but suffered no major issues. My parents’ parsley plants in New York City are still green in January too, and that’s after 6 inches of snow and 19F. I have no worries about those in South Carolina! The lettuce varieties I mentioned above like the bibb, fancy leaf, and a few lucky romaine plants managed very well through this hard freeze.

The results:

Cauliflower70% loss at 20F. Damage begins at 25F
LettuceRomaine was 70% loss at 20F. Damage begins at 25F. Some varieties like Bibb proved more cold hardy
ParsleyA little tip burn at 20F. Probably not cold hardy reliably much below 20F, but survived 6 inches of snow in my parents NYC yard and remains green in January.
CilantroNo damage at 20F. It could be more cold tolerant than parsley in the garden.
KaleNo damage at 20F. Completely winter hardy in South Carolina.
CabbageNo damage at 20F. Completely winter hardy in South Carolina.
Brussels SproutsNo damage at 20F, but the sprouts may be more cold sensitive. I’ve heard gardeners mulch the stems to protect sprouts in cold climates.

Seeds that germinate outside in the winter

Winter is a great time to sow seeds in the ground for the early spring garden. I replaced the cauliflower with new seeds and they’re already sprouting despite temperatures in the 50s during the day with nights in the 30s. I planted kohlrabi and broccoli rabe seeds with the cauliflower and had successful germination on those as well. I started arugula seeds in November and now I have leaves to pick for my January salads! I sowed spinach and lettuce seeds on my porch in early January and an expecting those to be ready for picking in March. My arugula seeds sprouted beautifully and after 2 months are ready to be picked. I started snow peas from seed in the fall. The plants germinated but haven’t grown much in recent weeks. They appear to be dormant right now, but were completely unharmed by the 20F weather.

I’m excited for spring, but the winter garden is something special too!

Year in Review: 2020 in the Garden

The global pandemic kept so many of us at home this year. There’s no doubt that 2020 has been lonely, but I’ve kept my head clear (and my hands dirty) in the garden. It feels good to make something beautiful out of an ugly situation and have fresh produce without relying on a grocery store. Many people see gardening the same way and picked up a shovel for the first time.

This was my first full year in the garden outside WLTX, and each season was a huge success! The weather in South Carolina was about as generous as it could get, There were few days of extreme heat, even fewer days of extreme cold, and an entire summer that was drought free. I had a totally clear schedule because of COVID-19 precautions and learned more in the past 12 months about gardening than ever before.

ON-AIR | Meteorologist Alex Calamia recaps the 2020 garden at WLTX

New things I learned

I have no formal education in plants or agriculture, so just like many home gardeners, I’m learning about gardening from experience. The weather has never caught me by surprise (WLTX has the most accurate forecast in the South Carolina Midlands!), but there are a few mistakes I made in the garden this year that I’ll never make again.

There’s a huge difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes

Tomato fruits come in all shapes and sizes, and the same is true for the plants themselves! There are a seemingly endless number of tomato cultivars, but only two types of growth habits, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow to a mature height (which varies based on cultivar) and then produce a mass of flowers and fruit. Determinate tomato plants are great in pots (some only grow a foot tall!), require less support, and won’t get overcrowded. Indeterminate tomatoes produce flowers and fruit sporadically and continue to grow until cold weather knocks them out. Indeterminate varieties can reach huge proportions, which is why they require support (after a while they practically look like vines!). I didn’t know my tomato plants growth habits until after they were planted. They became a tangled mess! In 2021, I’ll plant determinate tomatoes in a separate garden bed from the indeterminate types so they all have room to breathe.

The winter garden can be just as productive as summer time!

South Carolina is no stranger to regular hard winter freezes, but there are an impressive variety of plants that prefer the cool and dark days of winter over our hot and sunny summer weather. When the weather cools down in August and September, I start broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, collards, brussels sprout, cabbage, kale, parsley, and cilantro. These plants grow best during milder periods in the winter, but they can survive temperatures as low as the mid 20s without any damage. I really didn’t expect parsley to do so well in the winter garden because I’ve never seen them available for sale during the winter time.

“It looks, feels, and even smells like spring, but it’s still winter! Despite the tease, there are things you can plant in your garden right now that can take some southern chill. #FakeSpring #WLTXwx #GandysGarden

Originally tweeted by Alex Calamia (@AlexCalamiaWx) on February 4, 2020.

One plant species = Dozens of types of produce!

What if I told you pretty much every plant in my winter garden was the same species? Would you be surprised? I was! Brassica oleracea is native to the Mediterranean, but over thousands of years it’s been selected by growers to develop different characteristics creating amazing plants like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, and collard greens. These amazing greens are just variations of the same plant. Basically the entire winter garden is Brassica oleracea and Lactuca sativa (the botanical name for lettuce!).

Watermelon isn’t as hard to grow as it looks

I’ve always felt uneasy about trying watermelon plants. There’s something about big fruit that seems more intimidating than small and simple. I’ve never grown watermelon before because I didn’t have the space until this year, and I’m so glad I finally gave them a try. Despite all the advice online that makes these plants seem really finicky, they’re actually pretty easy. All watermelon plants need is full sun, enough water at the right time, and PLENTY of space and patience. They take about 3 months to start producing, but once those fruit form you’re just a few weeks away from heavy watermelons.

Starting some plants from seed are a waste of time

Seeds are the way to go for so many plants, especially in South Carolina where the growing season typically starts in March and warm days arrive quickly! This year I saved a ton of money starting tomatoes, basil, squash, watermelon, and squash from seed. Another huge benefit was having the opportunity to grow some incredible varieties you won’t find at local nurseries (like this delicious curvy squash that produced fruit for 9 months and grew over 50 feet long – practically into the parking lot!).

There are some plants that aren’t worth the effort from seed. Fruit trees take decades to produce fruit from seed and likely won’t produce true to seed. I’ve even found some popular summer plants like eggplant are rockstars if they’re purchased as seedlings but way too slow to germinate from seed unless you have a grow light indoors to give them a start in the wintertime. I’d rather just spend a few extra dollars to get them as small plants in the spring and save time.

I’m looking forward to 2021 already! The garden is going to be bigger, cleaner, more productive, and more diverse than ever. It’s only December, but now is absolutely the right time to start planning. What are you going to grow in your garden?

The moment I became a gardener

Alex's Porch

Plants can’t speak, but they’d have a lot to say about weather and climate if they could. I’m a meteorologist by profession and an avid gardener. I’ve been turning my parents’ New York City backyard into a tropical oasis ever since I was 13 years old. Now I grow fresh fruits and vegetables at work and share my success and failures with all our viewers.

As the years go by, the line between my career and my hobby is getting blurry. I’m learning more each growing season about how plants respond to environmental stress, and I’m learning more about myself too. My hard work and patience are rewarded with beautiful plants that give me so much happiness and food!

How fell in love with gardening

The garden bug bit me early. (I’ve been getting bit by plenty of actual bugs ever since, by the way!) I grew up in New York City, but my family would spend a few weeks in Florida every summer. I didn’t grow up around a lot of trees or thunderstorms in the city, but Florida was a total contrast. The thunderstorms were right on schedule every evening, and the palm trees looked so graceful dancing in the gusty downpours. I was hooked! I watched Florida’s palm trees breeze through some of the strongest storms of my childhood. It made me wonder why such resilient trees weren’t growing in New York. I refused to take “it’s too cold” for an answer!

There are thousands of different species of palm trees. Their fruits range from coconuts, dates, and the – currently very trendy – acai. Some species thrive in hot deserts, others grow in saltwater. Palms give off such an exotic vibe, but some, like the Sabal palmetto, are US native and have historical significance. In 1776, the British army’s cannons were no match for a fort on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina that was built using Sabal palmetto trunks. The palmetto has been on South Carolina’s state flag since 1861. The tree is so significant in its own right that many southerners don’t realize it’s just one of the dozens of native palm trees to the southeastern US.

Palm trees can handle a lot of rough weather, but they are a goner as soon as temperatures get too low. You won’t see a New York street lined with palm trees in the middle of winter anytime soon, but our climate is changing. I was only in the 9th grade when I planted my first palm tree in the ground in New York City. That was almost 15 years ago and those palm trees are still alive today.

Spring 2012 VS Summer 2020 in my parents’s New York City Backyard

Over the years I filled my parents’ yard with hundreds of plants. Some of them were tropical, others were really unusual, and a few produced amazing fruit. New Yorkers are known for taking things at a fast pace, but my neighbors would take things a little slower when passing by our front yard. I was able to have conversations with neighbors that would have otherwise passed by.

Gardening & My Career

I moved away from New York in 2017 to take my TV career to warmer pastures, and I took my passion for plants with me. When I worked in Gainesville, FL I had a weekly segment called “What’s Growing On” that featured all the latest agriculture news in north Florida and gave tips to gardeners. At work, I planted flowers and succulents in a courtyard that was previously covered in thorny weeds. Gardening once again proved to be an amazing way to connect with people, but instead of neighbors, I was having conversations with viewers and co-workers.

Right now I’m living in South Carolina where I’m living my dream job. I’m a morning meteorologist, but I’m also a gardener. WLTX’s, now-retired, former chief meteorologist Jim Gandy created a garden space where he shared grew fruits and vegetables and shared garden and climate stories with his viewers. Now I’m gardening in that space and sharing weekly stories about the connection between plants and climate. It’s important for viewers to be informed about how fragile our food supply is and to be empowered to make their yards greener and tastier. When viewers stop me in the store, the garden is the first thing they want to hear about! It’s so popular that I created a garden community on Facebook where I can have conversations with viewers about their gardens and share their advice, questions, and photos on our morning show.

A home garden is one of the greatest investments a person can make. Produce at the grocery stores can come from thousands of miles away in an expensive endeavor that uses a lot of resources and is not often environmentally sustainable. Growing food at home doesn’t have to take up a lot of space or cost a lot of money. Gardeners can choose to grow plant varieties that aren’t available at the grocery store without any added chemicals. All it takes is a pot of basil or a tomato that started sprouting from the compost pile to bring nature into everyday life. The end result is often a beautiful green space that gives more than it needs and can be enjoyed with family and friends for years to come.