If you’ve never smelled a gardenia in bloom you might want to avoid doing so in the future. The heady aroma is seductive – perhaps even addictive. Before you exhale you’ll be considering a purchase. And this is something a smart gardener might want to avoid. The gardenia is a lovely plant but it can also be a brutal mistress. You bring home the plant and place it – indoors or out – and wait for the lovely blooms. Enjoy that first batch because it might well be the last. Before you know it the blooms are gone and the leaves begin to yellow and then fall off leaving you with a leafless brown corpse. If you are quick you might have tried various soil additives (from iron to coffee grounds) before the plant dies. If you are slow you might not have to. The results will still be the same.
A landscape designer arranged for me to have a full dozen Kleim’s Hardy planted in my beds. One lived after the first summer. It’s still alive three years later and laden with lovely blooms though it’s crooked after heavy snows this past winter. Eleven were replaced last spring – dead corpses removed and more glossy and lush Kleim’s Hardy gardenias planted in their stead. This time I was ready with corn meal, special fertilizers and a deal with the local Starbucks for coffee grounds. With this many it’s best not to try and drink the coffee yourself. But, right on schedule, the leaves began to yellow and fall off. In early spring only four had any green leaves.
At the first mention of replacing them again there was an uproar around the house. The general feeling being that as the gardenias were destined for a grisly yellow death we ought to just stick with the dead gardenias we already had. We could, I was told, just get some air freshener which smelled of gardenia and pretend we’d had the few glorious days of blooms. But a new cultivar, Frostproof, was available at the local garden center and, after much agonizing, three were purchased as a Mothers’ Day gift. The rest are languishing in their post-bloom death state waiting to be replaced by hardier, though less heavenly, plants. In the car, as we brought the latest potential victims home, a child muttered, “These don’t look dead … are they really gardenias?”
The one successful gardenia I have does offer some insight into the plant’s needs. It’s located with morning sun and afternoon shade and next to the house protected from a lot of cold weather in the winters. The ground drains well in this bed and the soil is acidic – a nearby group of azaleas are quite happy. If you succumb to the scent of gardenias try to plant yours in a similar location. Fertilize them immediately after they bloom. Do not over water them. Do not underwater them. Test your soil and be sure it’s exactly as they desire. If the yellow still takes over consider voodoo – or a gardenia scented air freshener.