Hibiscus: a dense, decorative hedge you can grow from seed

Red Shield, a very beautiful dark-red annual hibiscus, is a dense and uniform hedge, screen, or background plant. It survives long drought and record heat with a weekly soaking. When the temperature drops and the fall rains come, however, Red Shield appears more vigorous than ever.

Last spring we planted 10 hibiscus plants, spaced a foot apart, along the northwest edge of a small vegetable garden. Here's how we did it:

Since the last spring frost usually occurs before April 19 (it may occur much later in your area), we sowed about 15 seeds in early March in a 71/2-inch clay bulb pot filled with Sow 'n' Grow Mix, a mixture of shredded peat moss, perlite, and fine-grade terralite vermiculite. The seeds were spaced less than 2 inches apart and covered their own thickness.

Hibiscus seeds need light to germinate, and the soil surface must never be soggy or dry. We set the pot, with a piece of window glass on top, on a southeast windowsill. About three times a week we set the pot in a shallow pan, containing about an inch of hot water, for about 10 minutes.

After two weeks, when the first seeds sprouted, we removed the glass. When each plant had four leaves, we set the pot outdoors in a spot that received early sun and remained sunny nearly all day. We put it out on an unseasonably warm afternoon and left it out for three days before transplanting the hibiscus seedlings along the edge of the garden.

The strip was spaded some 10 inches deep a week before, and a pail of compost had been spread along the row the previous fall. Before we raked the row, we added a quart of greensand, a soil conditioner that provides potash and improves soil absorbency.

With a stainless table knife, we cut carefully around each plant, gently lifted it without disturbing the soil around the roots, then set it in a slightly larger hole made with the same knife.

Just north of each plant we placed a rock about 6 inches high to protect the plant, hold moisture, and retain midafternoon heat for several hours. The darker the stone, the longer it holds heat.

We watered each hibiscus with diluted fish fertilizer in May and June, kept the strip weeded, and mulched twice - once with grass clippings and finally with loblolly needles.

Red Shield grows slowly and does not reach 6 feet until late August. From late July through October, it is a dense, colorful, and decorative hedge. Also, it survives light frosts.

Red Shield is a Park Seed Company exclusive. The address: PO Box 31, Greenwood, S.C. 29647. The toll-free number is 1-800-845-3369.

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