Q: Bettye McKinney wrote in last week wanting some information about growing gardenia. Didn’t say where she lives, but, being a gardenia grower myself, I’ll take a shot at it anyway!
Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) is a popular evergreen shrub across the Southeast, the West Coast and wherever winters are relatively mild. In colder climates it makes a dandy potted plant for a sunny winter window.
Introduced to England and America in the mid-1700s and named after a Charleston, South Carolina naturalist, the China native was thought to be a true jasmine (it isn‘t), from Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, hence its most common name, “cape jasmine.”
Easy to Grow
With glossy, dark green leaves and pure white flowers, this heirloom shrub makes a striking addition to the summer garden. The intense fragrance of gardenia blossoms can almost make people swoon with its cloying sweetness, especially on warm, muggy summer nights.
Gardenia grows well in both sun and moderate shade, and can tolerate drought — I have seen it thriving in old cemeteries with no care at all. But the shrubs require well-drained soil and a nice wide root system. This simply means dig a wide hole and lightly amend it with bark or compost so water doesn’t puddle around roots for long.
‘Radicans’ is a dwarf, spreading gardenia often used as a groundcover; ‘Summer Snow’ is one of the newer cold-hardy cultivars that can grow even in USDA Zone 6 with mulch to protect the lower trunk from freezing.
Challenges and Opportunity
When grown in alkaline soils or areas with hard water, leaves may turn pale green between the veins, indicating a need for an iron fertilizer supplement (ask at a garden center). Also, as older leaves begin to lose their vigor, right before dropping off they often turn bright yellow, which can alarm some gardeners.
Gardenia is also plagued by whiteflies and aphids, which can exude partly-digested sap called “honey dew“ that leaves a sticky residue, and sometimes get covered with black ”sooty mold." Just wet it down with soapy water and rinse with clear water, and it will flake off.
Gardenia is one of the easiest shrubs of all to root. Simply cut off the tip end of a branch in mid-summer, strip off any blooms and a few lower leaves, and stick in a bottle of water. Roots will be visible in just days, and the cutting can be planted within a month!
My garden looks so bare in the winter! What can I plant to cheer me up?
Nothing like a lack of color to bring on seasonal affective disorder — cabin fever, sometimes called the winter blues.
In addition to the many great shapes and textures of evergreen plants, there are some classic shrubs and small trees that flower in the winter, including witch hazel, mahonia, and, for folks in mild climates, camellia. But don‘t overlook plants with winter berries, great bark, a vine draped over a fence, or, in the case of hydrangeas, dried flower heads.
No matter where you live, a drive around an older, established part of town will reveal good ideas for your town. For a truly exceptional winter garden, go with several of the winter plants in a nice combination.
Try “forcing” some branches of spring-blooming shrubs in an indoor flower vase. Build an outdoor fire. Heck, even putting out a bird feeder can bring some color and excitement to your window.
But to me the best approach is to put out a “hard” feature — a garden structure such as an arbor, bench, decorative fencing or some sort of garden art. You may prefer a formal or classical statue, a large urn, birdbath, or a naturalistic piece of driftwood or oversized stone — even a flat one, stood on edge for better effect.
Or you can do something more whimsical, like (gasp!) put out some pink flamingos or a little family of gnomes. And nothing will perk up the under-stimulated pineal gland like some colorful glass bottles stuck on long nails on a fence post, or some other form of “bottle” tree.
Main thing is, add something meaningful to you or your family, or something that gives a strong impression to visitors. Just be wary of your neighbors’ feelings — remember, no matter what you do, or how you do it, your neighbors will talk about you anyway!
Get more from gardening expert and certified wit Felder Rushing at www.slowgardening.net.