The Q&A Archives: Gardenia plant needs help

Question: My mother lives East of Cleveland, Ohio in an Assisted Living facility. I had shipped to her for her August birthday a nice potted Gardenia plant. It was thriving quite nicely until the Northern Ohio winter hit. Unfortunately, the plant sits on a window sill and I'm sure it gets very cold there due to drafts. She has no where else to place it.
She told me today that the leaves started wilting a week or 2 ago and now looks pitiful. The leaves are still green and they're not falling off.
What can she do to revive her favorite plant so it will flower again?
As soon as I can get an answer, I will call her with your suggestion.
Thank you.
Walter Johnston
Salinas, Calif.

Answer: Gardenias have a well-earned reputation for being difficult specimens for even the experienced indoor gardener. Gardenias thrive on bright light, high humidity, and an even supply of moisture and nutrients. When gardenias are freshly delivered from a greenhouse grower, their glossy leaves and heavenly-scented blooms just about cause the plant to leap into your arms. But, then, the plant enters the home environment where hot, dry air and gloomy winter days send the gardenia in a downward spiral. Those delicate flower buds, so filled with promise of good things to come, begin dropping from the plant in droves. The glossy leaves turn dull, yellow, and they, too, begin to drop like tree leaves in autumn. If the plant survives this cruel change in environment, mealy bugs, spider mites, scale insects and stem cankers provide further challenges to overcome. Now for the good news. Gardenias can be successfully grown in the home, but they won?t tolerate neglect like many other houseplants. Gardenias thrive in bright light, cool temperatures and moderately humid air. Your challenge in growing the gardenia as a houseplant is to match the plant?s native environment as closely as possible. First, make sure you give the plant plenty of bright light, preferably direct sunshine for at least half a day. Winter will likely be the most difficult time to keep high light intensity due to shorter, gloomy days. Moving plants closer to southern-exposure windows and/or supplementing with plant-grow lights will help. Cooler room temperatures are best for the gardenia, around 55 F at night and about 10 degrees warmer by day. Maintaining proper relative humidity is a challenge, particularly during the winter heating season. There are several ways to help increase humidity, including running a humidifier and grouping plants together on trays of wet pebbles. Misting by hand with a spray bottle offers only momentary relief and so does not really increase humidity in a meaningful way. A healthy, blooming gardenia will need to be nurtured with a steady supply of water and nutrients, but don?t overdo. The goal is to provide the proper balance of water, air and nutrients. If soil is kept constantly wet, the roots will be starved for air. Too much fertilizer can lead to damaging salt accumulation. Monitor the soil frequently for moisture content, and water thoroughly as the top inch of soil dries. Use a fertilizer that is formulated for acid-loving, blooming plants, such as an azalea-type product, according to rates listed on the label. Don?t be afraid to prune the gardenia; in fact, blooming will be more prolific on younger growth. Remember that the gardenia is a woody shrub in its native environment and so may need to have older, woody stems removed to encourage new branches. Though the responsibilities of gardenia care are daunting, if you persevere, you?ll be rewarded with elegant white blossoms and sweet fragrance that simply cannot be matched by other plants.

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