You may find this shocking (and I hesitate to say it out loud because it makes me sound quite ignorant), but I have only recently discovered gardenias. Then again, I suppose my late awareness of them isn’t quite as surprising as it first seems, given that I live in the deep south and gardenias flourish in the warmth of tropical and sub tropical regions (the north of New Zealand and, better still, in the Pacific Islands, for instance).
I came upon them while in Greece last month. A sweet market gardener handed me a bloom while I was walking past her field of aubergines and then, the very next day, I encountered another gardenia growing in a pot at a monastery high in the mountains. The scent of the blooms was so sweet, and I adored the plant’s glossy, bright green leaves. Right then and there I determined I must grow one so it has come as quite a shock to discover that, although I can offer this relative of the coffee family the acid conditions and moist soils it craves, I can’t supply the heat it requires, or the humidity.
In northern parts of the country, gardenia are best planted outdoors where they receive morning sun and afternoon shade. This encourages flowering to be at its best around Christmas. In cooler regions (bearing in mind that gardenia will tolerate only the lightest of frosts so we’re not really talking ‘cool regions’ at all) the plants will still bloom but not as well ( mind you, I think just one flower would make all the work worthwhile).
Regular watering (don’t ever let gardenia dry out or the flowers will drop and the plant itself will be compromised) and very good drainage are essential, and a mulch over the ground beneath the plant is a must. Neglect feeding at your peril. While slow release pellets or a general fertilizer makes the job easier (apply twice a year), organic growers can apply liquid fertilizer every two weeks except in winter. I hate to say this (when the plant already sounds like a fuss-pot) but if you live in a particularly dry area or are experiencing a drought, you may want to consider spraying the leaves of gardenia with a fine mist once the sun is off the plant.
After I read all this, and realised the impossibility of growing a gardenia outdoors in my neck of the woods, I set about investigating if an indoor plant was possible. It is, but only if you can guarantee to keep it from aphids and other indoor nasties, and provide it with a temperature of around 18 C during the day and 13 C at night – and a humid environment. Given that I need a raging fire to heat my home during autumn and winter, the humidity isn’t a go-er.
Ah well, I’m happy for all of you out there who have the conditions it takes to grow gardenia. It may be a fussy plant but I’d be willing to dedicate myself to one if it meant I could have that perfume in my garden or on my window ledge. Until some clever propagator comes up with a hardy version of this exquisite plant, I’m off to the shops to buy some gardenia perfumed soap or hand lotion, and to check out if the hot house in my closest botanic gardens has a specimen or two in bloom because, put quite simply, I can’t live without that heavenly scent.