By H. JEAN SHIELDS
Special to The Breeze
Spring has officially arrived and I am sure you are noticing a variety of trees bushes and yards blooming all around. Even the medians have large patches of the violet society garlic. They do not last too long but are a sight when you run across a plot.
One of the best surprises when we moved to Cape Coral and bought our house was a bright green healthy looking bush about 4 feet tall that the seller did not know the name of. I did not recognize it either. The gentleman was a wizard with queen palms and crotons and all kinds of greenery. He was not a flower person. His wife was not even an outside person. She was afraid of cute little lizards and down right paranoid of seeing a possible snake.
Anyway, we could not resist an immaculate house on a beautiful fresh-water lake and a double-car garage to keep our new pick-up truck in. We had the standard Mercury for new retirees and he had his new pick-up because he had always wanted one. I convinced the dear practical man to buy a brand new one for the trip down from South Jersey.
In 1994 we landed right in the middle of the "no pick-up trucks allowed" to clutter up the driveways in Cape Coral. We had children living in Lee County so knew about the "no pick-ups allowed" to be seen on site, in "Cape Coma." No problem. our pick-up was more expensive than the Mercury and the husband always thought that the family vehicles belonged in a garage all the time anyway.
So we moved in and were kept busy getting settled and driving around to see what was really going on around here and buying new rakes and hoes and, of course, a new hedge trimmer for the bushes. We did not do much to the mystery bush and no one we talked to knew what it was.
In the spring I walked around to that east side of the house one day and lo and behold there was the bush bull of beautiful gardenias. I was thrilled. My only connection with gardenias was at Easter. My husband knew I was very happy to have a beautiful gardenia bush for the dinning room table, from the local florist. I really mean THE local florist; we only had one in town.
This beauty lasted two weeks and then just slowly died away. I never could figure how to keep it healthy. I had no idea a bush full of gardenias could be so big and beautiful, and even outside in the yard! That bush bloomed beautifully for about 4 years until it started looking a little peaked - not as many flowers, some kind of strange black moldy stuff on the leaves and not really happy. I was into the newly formed Garden Club by then and learned what was happening to my bush. It was far enough away from the concrete wall of the house and a small side walkway, and received total morning sun until noon. A nice airy place and I had fed it about once a year with some acid fertilizer because of the nearby ixora plants. That was a lucky break for the gardenia bush.
I learned about the nematodes that stalk plant roots in the Florida soil but must have enough mulch around it and good composted soil because that was not the problem.
It was, of course, the black sooty mold that is the excretions of the aphids and other tiny critters. I use Oil of Volick on it in the spring now, mostly only one time and I spray it off and on with hose to wash them off. I mainly have to remember to not ignore its needs and I feed it about three times a year, sometimes with worm stuff. I used to put coffee grounds around it back in the days we were drinking enough coffee to get a good supply of grounds to share. It is about 5 feet tall nowadays. I only trim it after it blooms, or within three months. A snip here and there while picking off blooms does not hurt it, but never trim it too soon after it blooms. In Fort Myers, I have a son-in-law who has blooms off and on for several months. He only gardens with roses and gardenias and does a fine job considering his first love is NASCAR and broken car engines. His wife will agree with that.
Where did these lovely semi-tropical, evergreen shrubs come from? China. They grew them for about 1,000 years. In 1761, a British naturalist, John Ellis, received a plant from China and named it after his friend, Dr. Alexander Garden, who was a noted botanist and physician from Charleston, S.C.
The blooms elegant form and pure white color and fragrance soon became popular in Europe and the British colonies in North America. In 1920 and '30 they were very highly prized as cut flowers and corsages. There unique fragrance - a mixture of vanilla, jasmine and nutmeg, although not a sweet scent - was well liked by ladies. A free standing bush or a grouping does well in this area, however they do need full sun, or mostly full sun. They will tolerate most well drained soils but do need to have some compost, or peat moss to grow at their best. Remember - right plant right place. This shrub is not salt tolerant.
When planting, be gentle with the roots and the root ball. Make sure the top of the root ball is even with the ground, or even a little higher. Fill the planting hole half full and pour in some water and allow it to settle before filling rest of planting hole.
You can build a little dam around the trunk to make sure it gets adequate water for the first few weeks. When you place mulch around the planting area do not crowd the mulch right up to the trunk. Gardeners mostly know not to smother the trunks of anything they are planting.
My sprinkler system runs once a week during the summer and that is adequate for the 20-year-old bush I have. I do hose it down off and on because of the hungry little critters that gather in the dry season.
You need to spray the leaves underneath also, with soapy water, plain water, and maybe some Oil of Volick.
Bud drop can occur because of a prolonged time of inadequate water, or too many aphids and critters. After 6 weeks, the mulch and twice a week watering or once a week should do fine. Just check on it to see where your sprinklers are actually putting down water.
You can also grow a gardenia bush in a large pot on the lanai. Use a good organic potting soil, and make sure it drains well. Sprinkle some worm castings around about once a year and loosen the soil a bit. Always watch all plantings in a pot, they tend to dry out quicker than you think, especially in the sun.
A cutting can be started without any grafted rootstock.
Gardenias are a member of the family Rubiaceae and belong to the genus Gardenia. There are more than 200 species in Florida. A south area gardenia may bloom at a different time than a more northern area. There is a variation in the size of the flowers also. Read you plant tags or check with the Nurseryman.
Enjoy this great weather. I know the snowbirds are starting to go back north. It seems they always leave just when Southwest Florida comes into full bloom.
Happy gardening until we meet again.
H.Jean Shields is a past president of the Cape Coral Garden Club.