Tired of growing the easy ones? Try some gardenias

Are you tired of reading about how to grow houseplants without rally trying? Or bored with cultivating the tolerant toughies, such as the philodendrons, the dumb-canes, or trileaf wonders?

Are you ready to test your skills as a gardener?

If the answer is yes, pick on a gardenia and you won't be disappointed.

Everything about gardenias, except smelling and watching the fragrant double flowers, is difficult.They are temperamental plants, intolerant of compromise. Give one what it wants or you'll never see another cram-colored bud among its shiny green leaves.

Unsatisfied, the gardenia pouts in disgust, yellowing its foliage and shedding its flowers.

Nonetheless, granted that growing gardenias at home is arduous, once you arrive at the correct balance of water, light, food, humidity, and soil mixture, the result -- uniquely beautiful, very fragrant, giant, double-rowed flowers -- is worth the toil. And if you fail to induce this prima donna to flower, it will decorate your home with its numerous, brightly green, and glossy leaves growing in minibush style.

Your initial treatment should aim at alleviating the shock the gardenia undergoes when it first joins the average dry, warm, and drafty home after a youth spen in the cool, moist, and constant environement of a greenhouse. Of course it puts and sheds some of its foliage. Wouldn't you?

To lessen the defoliation, mimic the cool and moist greenhouse atmosphere. Provide at least 30 percent humidity by misting frequently or by growing your gardenia atop pebbles submerged, up to three-quarters of their height, in a shallow tray of water.

Once you see a hint of a bud, begin covering the gardenia with a transparent plant bag at night.

Provide your gardenia with bright light, but be sure to shade it from direct summer sunshine. Morning sunlight is a favorite. In place of natural light you can successfully grow gardenias under Gro-lux wide-spectrum lamps. If outdoors, place the gardenia beneath a tree.

Keep the soil -- equal parts of loam, peat moss, and coarse sand -- consistently moist. Once a month water with leftover tea. And from January through September feed evey two weeks. If the leaves begin to yellow and you are certain the light is ample, switch the fertilizer to one containing iron.

Keep your gardenia away from drafts and gas leaks and provide it with a steady daytime temperature of 70 to 75 degrees F. And a night temperature of 60 to 65 degrees F. Without the 10-degree drop in night temperature, the gardenia won't bud.

Unfortunately, you will not be the only admirer of the gardenia blossoms. Numerous pests -- aphids, mealy bugs, mites, and white flies -- love to bug gardenias. Therefore, always be on the lookout for evidence of their presence.

The telltale signs are stunted, discolored, deformed, and blotchy growth; sticky, shiny, honeydew trails; irregularly spaced dark specks and mounds; waxy white buildup on joints and spines; cream-colored webs on the undersides of foliage; and swarms of flies above a plant you've shaken.

To remedy, immediately isolate and either bathe the infested area or dab the pest traces with denatured alcohol. Repeat twice a week for a month. If the pestering persists, resort to chemical warfare and spray with a commercial pesticide, such as Malathion.

If one gardenia is an insufficient challenge, you can increase their number by taking and rooting 4-inch stem cuttings of new growth.

Remove all leaves from the cuttings, except for the top two or three. Dip the cut ends in a rooting hormone, shake off any excess, and plant in moist sand.

Cover with a transparent plastic bag which you've punctured a few times with a fork. In 6 weeks transplant the rooted cuttings to individual 3-inch pots.

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