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December 7, 2004 > Gardenia Guesswork

Gardenia Guesswork

by Pat Kite

I don't know whether I'm brain slow or just gardener persistent, but I have once-again purchased a gardenia. This is, at least, my fourth try at growing gardenias. All have looked at me knowingly when I planted them carefully in our Tri-City clay, much amended, of course. For a while, they just sat there, absorbing the ambiance. Then, little by little, they dwindled. No sudden death for these so-called persnickety plants. That I could deal with after 50 gardening years. But the dwindles, every day a little less, it's enough to make my chartreuse thumb weep.

So why did I do it once again? First, and foremost, of course, I love gardenia fragrance. But the truth is less romantic than that. It seems, every day, when I walk my doglets, I pass by a parking strip where three compact gardenia bushes thrive. This is a rather narrow parking strip, located under a water-stealing street tree, with the gardenias semi-surrounded by small non-descript hedges.

It is mid-winter, and these gardenia bushes still have gardenias. "Inhale our aroma, oh jealous one," they call out. After a year of this, it really got to me. So I once-again looked up "gardenias" in my 400-book garden tome collection. Permit me to share:

Sunset Western Garden book mentions that gardenias are "hard to grow in adobe soils." It mentions that overcrowding is to be avoided. Surrounding soil should have good drainage, but retain water. And one shouldn't expect the plants to bloom well without summer heat. In summary, one should tenderly nurture gardenias, because if you don't they will yellow and demise.

My Simon & Schuster book "Garden Flowers," mentions that gardenias do nicely in a greenhouse, but can be grown outdoors in warm areas. They like partial shade, a mild climate, and "woodland-type soil."

Peter Loewer's book, "A Year of Flowers" states that gardenias need ample sunlight during the winter months and, if possible, all summer too. One must fertilize every three weeks when in flower. And soil must be kept moist, 'since the roots are thin and fragile," drying quickly without enough water.

But every time I went by the gardenia-laden neighborhood parking strip, I saw where the gardenias were thriving. It was semi-dry, with root competition, and while residing in mostly sun, nobody was coddling them. Which is why I decided to try again, this time following local reality.

I purchased "Gardenia Veitchii" because it is "reliable." It was placed in an open strip against my house wall, an area where most other plants refuse to grow. The area makes water disappear, and it has some sun, but not enough. Nothing special was done to the soil. However I did give the shrub a little pep talk. "You had better...," I said.

So far it is still alive and still green. Gardeners are ever hopeful. And, while on the subject, did you know that the gardenia was named after amateur botanist Alexander Garden, a Scottish-American physician living in South Carolina? His granddaughter was named Gardenia Garden in his honor. Have a lovely day. I am already reading seed catalogues in honor of springtime springing.

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