My take on the Gardenia Myth

blutayle(z9aFL)January 6, 2011

I can remember back as a little child my grandmother having a gardenia plant in her house back in NY. In the winter it would have the most exquisite blooms and a fragrance that to me was haunting. I was hooked. For the next 20years I tried in vain to raise these beautiful, glossy miniature gardenia plants you see around Mother's Day into a giant specimen. Then reality would set in a few weeks later when the plant would abruptly shed all its leaves, sulk, and die. I read every book, searched every forum, consulted every green thumb in the area. There would always be some special rule, ceremony, or ritual you would have to follow for the plant to flourish. Then I moved to Florida...

What a difference a state makes. I quickly learned everything I could not glean from the experts up North. This plant is not really a houseplant but a shrub like an Azalea or Camellia. And the grafted plants are the only ones for Florida due to the nematodes. I experimented with a few plants down here and was shocked at what I found. I picked up a 4ft. Miami Supreme that I planted in a big patio pot from Home Depot. Then I ignored it. Absolutely ignored it. It rained, it blew, cold front after cold front would hit the plant with lows in the upper 20's. The plant would look sad and withered. Then in spring it would flush out and be covered in thousands of blooms the size of my palm. Outside it flourishes...but the moment you take it nosedives. The light intensity is so important for these plants. So many times in my home up north, the light intensity was too dark, even by a south window with such shortened days. It would attract spider mites like nobody's business and would generally just decay due to the extremely dry indoor conditions. When you tried to keep it wet, it would turn yellow and drop its leaves. I have come to realize that for a short time you can keep a gardenia in the house to enjoy but it really belongs outside. Oh, it can be done. You can have lights on timers, humidifiers, spraying programs for mites, epsom salts and acid fertilizer. You can grow it indoors with lots of fuss. What I have realized is growing Gardenias out of the Sun Belt is like trying to grow tulips and peonies in Florida...just doesn't work. I can plant tulips the first year in Florida, watch them bloom....then after foliage matures, dig them up, put them in the fridge for the chilling period and start over...a big fuss. But if someone gives me a pot of them for the holidays I realize it would be a fleeting moment of enjoyment. The trade off for losing the ease of growing tulips and peonies in Florida is being able to grow gardenias into trees...and ignoring them. They are just part of the landscape. Up a home....they are a fuss...they are not difficult plants by any means...we are just forcing them to grow in a habitat they were not ever meant to see...but for the thrill of the breathtaking pure white flowers...and the haunting fragrance...we will go to great lengths to master this plant. I blame the florists and nursery trade for all the pain I suffered in those early years watching plant after beautiful plant die. They are making money putting plants in our homes that were never meant for captivation. Likewise, down here in Florida, at Home Depot, you will find them selling impatients in June, and Gardenias that are not grafted which will surely die if planted in the ground with the nematodes. These stores do not responsibly tell gardeneres the right thing to do or is up to us to know the difference. For all those that raise amazing indoor gardenias...hats off to is a labor of love...but no myth of being a very difficult, finnicky plant...just trying to make our homes as welcoming to them as they would expect in their native habitat...and when that flower opens...nothing else matters that took place prior to that is all worth it!

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One of my first experiments...

    Bookmark   January 6, 2011 at 4:59PM
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What a great story Blutayle!

Thank you for sharing all this with us!

You are right. Trying to grow a gardenia up here is like trying to grow a happy wild bird in cpativity, in a small cage. It is almost impossible, but can be done!
It take years of prcatice and failure. along with a few thousands doolars thrown into the toilet for these.And growing them down there, is much EASIER. That is why I love the south.

But after a few years, I have finally mastered it for even up here! Yes, I am finally growing happy gardenia's all winter, something not even my local nursery owners won't even attempt. They make sure they get them into the hands of that poor unsuspecting customer at more than half price, so they do not have to deal with the problems associated with them, even in greenhouses all winter!

That is where I come in though. I pick myself up a couple at those great prices and have one to show off come spring.

The key I found out to have success was this.

1: Provide the sunniest window possible if growing at room temps over 60.

2: They do not need the same amount of sun if growing in temps below room temps.

3: Do not over water, especially in soils that hold water for more than a few days, if conditions are cool, and if not adequate lighting.

4: In order to avoid pest issues, plant has to be very healthy

5: Fertilize all year long in a very porous mix and add vinegar to the solution to keep it vibrant and green.

6: NEVER NEVER NEVER let the plant wilt due to lack of water, and always keep evenly moist.

7: Slowly acclimate plants to coming indoors and to the outdoors.

Should I keep going?

You are right, they can be very difficult to understand, but anyone can get it just right if they have the time and patience..

Thank you for sharing again and just know that growing healthy gardenia CAN be done indoors, even up here in the cold north.;-)


    Bookmark   January 6, 2011 at 5:31PM
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Thanks for the great follow-up. I believe I have seen some beautiful pics of your plants if I am not mistaken. For those with a true passion for this plant...we can understand...for the unsuspecting customer, as you have pointed out, can get zapped. The florist plants are usually crowded together two or three or more stems in a pot that is usually packed in peat. Guess it is never explained to the unsuspected buyer that at temps under room temperature the plant slows down growth and wet soil will then cause rot. Those with green thumbs understand the correlation...but many many people with no gardening experience get these plants and it has earned a bad reputation. So sad because when happy this plant is a favorite on the planet...on the same level as the tea olive but still number one on my list. I wish I could send you the 5foot standard First Love Gardenia tree from Lowes in the spring...too large to ship but bet you could keep it over the winter....5in wide perfect flowers...heaven!

    Bookmark   January 6, 2011 at 6:48PM
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Your welcome!

Thank you for your nice comments that you shared and about my plants. I will post a picture of my gardenias I took a couple of days ago so you can feel good knowing that healthy plants are a possibility if you should decide to move back up here..:-)

You are so right! Do you know how many people I know that will not even attempt these plants anymore because they have been so traumitized?

One women at work I know lost one within a couple of weeks doing everything I taught her to do. So when she went back to return it, she was told by a new worker there that she couldn't replace it with another because all the others were thrown out due to a severe mite infestation!
I wonder what killed hers? She says she will never buy another denia again and at that place.

My head just spins when I see what they sell, in what condition, and with no instructions or support..


    Bookmark   January 7, 2011 at 10:49AM
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Here are a couple of pictures I took today of my in-grown winter gardenias for you.

See? You can move back up here anytime and still enjoy these wonders of beauty in the comforts of your own home while winter is in full gear;-)

    Bookmark   January 7, 2011 at 9:38PM
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mehitabel(z6 MO)

Mike: gorgeous gardenias. When do you put yours outside again? I couldn't agree more that providing good light in winter is the problem for gardenias, jasmines and probably hosts of other fragrants. I'm getting mine outside as soon as I can, hopefully by mid Feb.

And PS one of mine that was downstairs under 400W MH lights is actually blooming now. It's labeled G veitchii, but I mixed up the labels once, so can't be sure.

Blutayle: great post, and much needed! I don't take it as a caution not to try to grow gardenias, but certainly a caution about how and where to buy them. Plants bought at the big box stores are grown for a quick sale at a cheap price. Sometimes a "big plant" is three small ones in a big pot. I've seen "Rosemary trees" that were already dead when bought by someone who didn't know rosemary needles stick like glue unless the plant is dead dying.

So everyone, buy gardenias carefully, put them in a clay pot that barely fits the root system, and keep them in your best light.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2011 at 2:00PM
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Thank you so much for your nice comments. I will stick it outside as soon as the temps regularly stay above the mid fifties at night. It seems to take the 50's and anything higher very well.
I will slowly acclimate into the full sun and unpredictable temps...

Congrats on the one that is blooming! It is anything short of a miracle when we get these babies to flower this time of year for sure. Marvelous.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2011 at 5:01PM
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Wow Mike....don't even see them that healthy in Florida...great job....the foliage is outstanding!

    Bookmark   January 17, 2011 at 9:41PM
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I've found that gardenias hate a stale atmosphere. Houses that are rather drafty suit them better than those constructed for energy efficiency. I've also found they are MUCH hardier than they're given credit for. For the last decade, I've grown my gardenias outside from, roughly, early March to, some years, mid-November. They go into the garage when temperatures start dropping into the low 20's and they come out when temperatures are likely to stay above that. Ocassionally, they freeze solid! Spokane's climate is semi-arid, with low humidity during the summer months. The dewpoints seldom rise into the high 50's, and occasionally dip into the low 20's. Also, the pH of the water (from an aquifer) runs about 8. The spread between daytime highs and nightime lows is almost always more than 10 degrees; 20 to 30 is typical. They seem to love it! I never have mites, they bloom heavily in early summer and again in fall, with scattered flowers between, and don't mind the hard water. I have 'Veitchii', 'Chuck Hayes', 'Kleim's Hardy', and 'Frostproof'. I also have a 'Frostproof' in the ground. This is its second winter, and has seen near 0F. with some tip dieback. Last year, it saw 3F. with similar damage, but rebounded and bloomed heavily this last Fall.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2011 at 12:04AM
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lou_midlothian_tx(z8 DFW, Tx)

I've seen big ones in the ground in alkaline soil and I asked these people what they do to take care of them and they said nothing. Maybe they are more hardy in the ground? I bought some last fall to find out how they do at my house in raised bed mainly of pine bark fines with a bit of sharp sand,zeolite, and greensand. So far, so good. Survived several hard freezes as low as upper 10*F.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2011 at 9:51AM
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I miss my Gardenias! I moved from North Carolina to Maryland ove 5 years ago and just can't go another year without my sweet Gardenias! I would like to try to put one outside in the soil. I am not a great gardener and my local nursery tell me to forget it! I have bought those at big box stores only to be crying within a week or two.
I will try again. If any of you have any pointers let me know.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2011 at 2:50PM
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Hey Stephanie!
You could grow them indoors during our cold northeast winters and bring them out during the spring and summer and into the fall. I currently have a gardenia that I am growing in 'Al's soilless mix', which from what I've read and seen on this site, is the best growing medium you can find.

Since I've only begun growing my gardenia in this mix about 2 weeks ago, I can tell you that my gardenia is putting out new growth.

You should search for the 'container soil' and learn all about successful container growing from Al. Before you think about buying a new gardenia, read up on the topic at hand and you will not regret it, it will be the key to successful container growing.

Good Luck to you and don't give up on growing gardenias, I know I won't...

Here is a link that might be useful: Container Soils - Water Movement & Retention

    Bookmark   March 5, 2011 at 11:37PM
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mehitabel(z6 MO)

Michael. Thanks for your post on the resistance of potted gardenias to low temperatures. Very useful information.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2011 at 12:55PM
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snasxs(7-8 VA)

blutayle, I am so jealous.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2011 at 8:47PM
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blutayle(z9aFL) need to be jealous...just move on down to Florida. They grow like weeds. I was so obsessed with raising them up North and now to come down South and ignore them and they become monsters with flowers as big as your palm. Still my favorite scent on a warm, breezy late spring evening and I find myself still buying more at the box stores when they get the big 5 foot standard First Love trees in. I have no room for them but I keep gettin them. Need my head examined...LOL.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2011 at 6:04PM
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skippy05(z7 PA)

Like everyone else, I went thru many store bought potted gardenias & they eventually died.
I finally looked into hardy gardenias for my location (phila.) I bought a Chuck Hayes in 2004 & planted it in our small back yard. It didn't bloom the 1st year, but I heard that was normal. But, every year after that it bloomed.
It is now huge & is in full bloom. The smell is heavenly. I have to admit that I do nothing special to this plant. Occasional coffee grinds, egg shells in the soil under the plant. When milk carton is empty I fill with water & shake, then pour it into the plant, I read somewhere milk is good for them??? I would suggest a Chuck Hayes for someone who loves gardenias but is not in a warm climate year round.
Obviously, they don't like to be pampered! LOL

    Bookmark   June 20, 2011 at 5:27PM
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mistascott(7A VA)

I also have a Chuck Hayes in its first season. It is blooming profusely. However, I am a little disappointed in the scent. It isn't nearly as intoxicating as the indoor ones I have smelled in greenhouses.

Not sure if it has something to do with the individual plant, the growing conditions, its newness, or what.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2011 at 12:15AM
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I've grown gardenias in the DC area for several years.
II started with a few from nurseries in the early 2000s. After some mistakes
with overwatering in summer and freezing in winter I finally got the hang
of it and have only lost two plants since 2008. I have four which are
thriving, one is three feet by two feet by two feet in a large windowbox.

The key here unless you have a VERY sunny window in winter is to overwinter them in very cool conditions. I keep mine in my unheated garage. They will tolerate long periods of darkness when cold (30-45F) and if it's warmer than that they can go outside. About a quarter of the winter days here are warm enough to leave them out. Temperatures below 25F damage the flower buds and newer growth. Conversely in summer I give them 4-6 hours of sun, preferably morning sun. In spring and fall they get full sun.

WIth this regimen, I get small flower buds in November. THese overwinter and start growing in April. Around Memorial day I get flowers and they bloom until about July 4. After that they start dropping buds and generally don't do as well
in midummer heat. (low 90s days, mid 70s nights). From mid July to sometime in late August they don't seem to make buds and just grow leaves but after that
they make buds again. Late August buds start blooming in early October and I just got my first three today. Cool weather from mid November on seems to slow the big buds enough that they just die on the plant, very slowly. Small buds
do okay.

I never let them dry out but don't keep the soil sodden either. Their pot will
keep them moist for two sunny dry days so I try to keep it on the dry side
when I am not on vacation or otherwise gone and water it to half capacity.
Overwatering in summer is lethal. I use pro-mix for potting soil although I am not
happy with it for long term (years) use. Every few years I cut them back hard to
main branches.

There is a second type I have found in my neighbor's yard. THis has 5" typically fragrant flowers in June (fall flowering is not as good as the florist types)
and is fully hardy here in Zone 7. It is at least 20 years old, has 6" trunks and
is obviously thriving. It gets full midday sun. I just got cuttings (with permission)
this summer; they've rooted and I'll see how they do. He does not know the origin of the plant but the local Home Depot sells a very similar one which is
said to be hardy. I've never tried it.

The point here is that like the Spokane WA poster earlier, gardenias will tolerate a lot of chilling and light freezes. They do not like the combination of warm, dry, stagnant and dark that they get in a typical house in winter.

    Bookmark   October 4, 2012 at 5:07PM
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