Many garden centers have camellias and gardenias prominently displayed at this time of year. Occasionally an azalea too. These are in flower and their beauty and fragrance is very tempting. Before you succumb to temptation, realize that these not native to our arid Southwest climate and will need some special care.
The Issue is Our Soil & Water & Climate
Camellias, gardenias, and azaleas need acid soils. Our Southwest soils are alkaline. Our water comes out of the tap alkaline. Furthermore, all soils have an amazing capacity to buffer themselves, returning to their natural alkaline pH very quickly after any treatment. Given these facts of life, you will need to grow your gardenias, camellias, or azaleas in pots with potting soil for the rest of their life.
Question: Can’t I just add plenty of nice acidic compost to desert soil?
Answer: You can try, but soils have an amazing capacity to buffer themselves, returning to their natural alkaline pH very quickly after any treatment.
Example: Jim Hawk’s wife loves gardenias. Before he died, he dug her a four foot by four foot pit into the desert soil, filled it with potting soil, and planted gardenias for her. They did wonderfully for the first year, but bloomed less the second year. A soil test revealed the soil was turning alkaline. The soil and plants do get acid treatments, but they have bloomed less well each year. With his example in mind, I advocate simply growing these acid-lovers in containers.
Growing Gardenias and Camellias in the Southwest
Gardenias, camellias and azaleas come from cooler climates than ours. Even the sweltering deep south doesn’t get into our hundred-and-teens. This is another reason to keep these plants in pots. Use unglazed terra-cotta ceramic pots, and thus water will evaporate through the sides of the pot helping keep the roots cool – like they prefer.
Do not place gardenias, camellias, or azaleas in full sun, no matter what the label says. Even in the winter, our full sun is more than they can deal with. A north-facing side of the home works great. If you have a long entry way to your home, as many homes of new construction do, consider a gardenia or camellia. They will like living in pots in this shady site, and you will welcome visitors to your home with flowers, at least part of the year.
These plants are from moister climates than our own. They do best when kept moist but not soggy wet. Once plants are established in pots, water every three to five days in winter, daily in summer.
One aspect of water is the water in the air, or the humidity. While gardenias and camellias can tolerate our desert low humidity, in my experience azaleas do not survive low humidity so well. If you place their pot under a sheltering tree, and out of the wind this will help somewhat.
Fertilizer for Gardenias and other Acid-Lovers
Use a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants. Select a bloom fertilizer (high in phosphorous) in September (well before frost). Use a standard fertilizer after the bloom period is done. Follow label directions.
Camellias and azaleas bloom in the cooler months, gardenias bloom as it warms up. The flowers of both gardenia and camellia make lovely cut flowers, but will remain more fragrant on the bush.
You can grow non-natives in the Southwest if you want. It is your yard, your time and labor, and your water bill. Never underestimate the aesthetic function of plants. If it brings joy into your life, you should have the plants you desire. Life is tough enough in so many other ways, your garden should be a place for you to find ease.
As always, enjoy!
More about overall care of your land and landscape in this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.
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