There are a few plants that I simply can’t grow. Delphinium, phlox and astilbe are on that list. But maybe I should say “can’t grow yet” because eventually I might succeed. That’s what happened with gardenias.
In my early years of gardening, I bought many gardenia plants and tried to keep them growing. They died, one by one, without ever blooming. My mother had grown beautiful gardenias in hotter-than-hell Phoenix, so I wondered why I couldn’t manage in San Jose. My hairdresser here in San Jose could grow them – I saw bouquets of fat blooms that she brought to her shop, all picked from her tiny balcony garden. I tried to follow her advice, but nothing seemed to work. She grew hers in pots, so I did too, she watered lightly every day so I did too, she fed them and so did I. But hers bloomed and mine didn’t.
Then I bought a new variety called ‘Frostproof.’ It had small blooms, but it was advertised as being better adapted to cool winters. We don’t get many killing frosts here, but ‘Frostproof’ was clearly better adapted to my area than any gardenia I had tried. That one plant grew and bloomed and it’s still blooming now after fifteen years in my garden!
‘Frostproof’ was my gateway gardenia. Now I have three plants, each a different variety, all giving me summertime blooms. All season long I pick one or two to put on my bedside table so I can go to sleep breathing in their scent. Success is sweeter when it comes after so many tries!
I wish I could tell you what I did that made a big difference, but I’m only guessing. I don’t have the time or inclination to make a real study of this, a study with controls and variables to test. But here are a few things that might have helped me get beautiful gardenias.
- Finding the right site then leaving the plant there. Potted gardenias never worked for me, but I found eventually found two sites in my yard where gardenias can thrive; both get bright shade for most of the day and direct sun for only a few hours.
- Letting moss grow around the base of the plant. Most experts will warn you not to cultivate around gardenias because they have shallow surface roots that don’t like to be disturbed. In my garden that meant that mossy stuff began to grown under the gardenias (not true moss, I think it’s Soleirolia, aka Baby’s Tears, but to be honest I don’t know for sure. It pops up in shady spots here in California). The Soleirolia (or whatever it is) probably cools and protects the gardenia roots.
- Watering lightly and regularly in summer. Gardenias are from the tropics where light daily moisture is a given, unlike the dry summers we have here in California. My gardenias are on water-wise weekly drips, but during June, July and August I also give them a light sprinkling nearly every day.
- Fertilizing the plants – usually with Osmocote. Gardenias are said to like acid soil, and for years I fed my gardenias acid fertilizers, but it didn’t help them – they still died without blooming. Now I use Osmocote once a year in spring and it works better. It’s possible that the soil changed enough over time that it’s now more acidic in some small areas, but I doubt that. My advice is don’t get too worked up about using only acid fertilizers. Fertilize with something by all means, add coffee grounds if you like, but don’t spend a bundle on acid formulations.