Ask the Gardener

Ask the Gardener: Gardenia is a pretty pig

CorrespondentJuly 11, 2014 

I moved into this house in Durham in October 1996. One of the foundation plantings turned out to be a gardenia. I’m from New England, so this has been new to me. After an initial pruning of dead stock, I really haven’t done much to or for it. It has seemed happy, and once it started to bloom after a year or two, it put on a show for me every year. This year there have been no flowers at all. I am totally mystified.

Carolyn Hergenrother

Durham

It seems your gardenia is in its happy place, since it performed well for 18 years until this season, so humidity, which it needs for proper blooming, is not the problem. Nor, does it seem, is inadequate sunlight, which ideally translates into some morning sun with, if possible, shade during the hottest time of day in the summer. So, I’ll tell you a little secret: Gardenias might be pretty, but in reality, they are pigs.

Every growing season, they have a need for feed – in garden-speak, that means plenty of fertilizer. So, for the healthiest plants – and the best flower displays – they should be fertilized at least once a month starting in the early spring until the mid-July. Blood meal or fish emulsion will work, but I have found gardenias to be a bit picky about soil pH, so I would also consider an acidic fertilizer made for azaleas. These are available at most garden shops. Adding generous amounts of compost around your gardenia each spring will also help.

Looking for Betsy bush

I have checked all our local garden centers, and they do not have the sweet Betsy bush. Could you advise any mail-order supplier so I may purchase one? We live on the coast.

Almeda Rouse

Morehead City

Since sweet Betsy is indigenous to the Southeast, I knew to first check Niche Gardens. Located in Chapel Hill, it is an exceptional native plant nursery, and they do carry it. You can order at nichegardens.com. (Tip: Niche Gardens uses sweet Betsy’s other name, Sweetshrub. Use that name or its botanical name, Calycanthus floridus, when you search.) However, before you buy a sweet Betsy for your coastal garden, keep in mind that this shrub is not particularly salt tolerant.

Try roasting okra

I am a big okra fan – the flowers are gorgeous, the plant is handsome, and I love to eat it all summer. If you want a new taste treat, and to turn around your friends who express disdain for its “sliminess,” try roasting it. Brush or spray the pods with a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast at high heat for a few minutes, turning once, until it is tender and just a wee bit blackened on the ribs. You can grill it, too. It is a whole different flavor, and much healthier than breaded and fried!

Sue Kocher

Raleigh

I also enjoy sinking my teeth into more than a few pods of grilled okra, so I know what you mean. And if you want even more delicious ways to add okra to your meals, consider the cookbook “Okra” by Virginia Willis, which just came out this year. It was published by UNC Press as a part of their “Savor the South” series. You can check it out on their website at uncpress.unc.edu.

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Send your garden questions, including the city where you garden, to: askthegardener@newsobserver.com.

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