Gardenias in the South: General Care Guide for Your Home Garden

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The scent of Gardenias wafting through the heady summer night air is the perfume of a Southern summer. The glossy evergreen leaves, elegant flowers, and variety of habits make Gardenias a staple of the Southern garden. Everyone has a story to tell about one from their childhood, and most folks have one in their gardens. Yet some folks struggle to keep them in a manageable shape or size, or they fret about whether they should be doing anything at all for them! Don’t let their reputation make them seem larger than life. Let’s learn about Gardenias!


Who are the Gardenias in our gardens?

Gardenia is a genus of about 130 species in the coffee family, Rubiaceae, native to the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, Madagascar, Pacific Islands, and Australia. There are two main species we grow in our Southern gardens: Gardenia jasminoides and G. thunbergia. These hail from Southeast Asia, and harken back to when Western gardening was infatuated with plants from the Orient.

Gardenia jasminoides tends to have a smaller leaf and a flat-faced flower, while G. thunbergia is a more robust plant with a deep green leaf and tends to have a double flower. Most folks select one or the other based on the size of the Gardenia they need for their space. Most of the “dwarf” or trailing varieties are going to be Gardenia jasminoides varieties. There are some variegated varieties, with white or yellow leaf edges, but sometimes these can be slower growing or more prone to burning in the sun.

When do I prune my Gardenias?

This is the most common question we get about Gardenia care and the answer is fairly simple: you really shouldn’t have to! Most Gardenias have a pleasant natural shape that maintains itself. It is perfectly fine to prune branches away from structures or out of pathways. If you are finding you are having to constantly prune Gardenias, then you may want to consider moving the shrub or removing it for another one more appropriate for the site.

Do not do hard cutbacks from September to March. It is better to wait to prune Gardenias after they flower, which can be about June to August, depending on the variety.

However, if Gardenias have recently been stressed or attacked by a pest or disease they can look thin and almost ugly, and sometimes a hard cutback is necessary. If you do think this is the necessary course of action, make sure to treat for the pest or disease with the appropriate chemical after you remove the trimmings and make sure to remove the trimmings from your property.

Other General Care Guidance

Gardenias are easy to care for in the South. They prefer acidic, well-drained soils and don’t mind our mostly mild winters or sweltering summers. We usually see people reporting poor performance under a few common conditions: the pH is off, which can be diagnosed with a soil sample; when the fertility is low, which can be diagnosed with a soil sample; when the soil is too wet, which means you need to move the plant or change the way water drains around it; or when there is a pest issue, which should be diagnosed by bringing in a branch to your local Cooperative Extension Office. There are many Gardenia pests, but it is important to have them properly identified, as you can waste time and money and risk the health of your shrub if you use the wrong product.

Gardenias are an elegant, evergreen garden stalwart and are easy to care for. When you smell that wonderful, sweet, provocative scent, you can celebrate with a mint julep and know you’ve earned a rest from your summer garden efforts.

Amanda Wilkins Bratcher is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.