What you need to know about growing hibiscus
There are few more refreshing ways to cool down on a hot summer day than sipping on an icy jar of hibiscus tea. And if anything screams summer more than the sight of a neon hibiscus blossom, I can’t name it. And as summer pumps on, some of us are dreaming of garden upgrades and decadent flowers heavy in the backyard. If you’re like me in these ambitious garden goals, you’re in luck! It turns out hibiscus is versatile, and variants of it thrive all across the country. Let’s take a look at the steps we need to get hibiscus out of our heads and into the garden.
Before any planting, first thing’s first: you need to know your hardiness zone, or your climate region based on the extreme low temperatures for your area. Knowing the hardiness zone is essential for any garden, and helps you determine harvest dates, transplanting times, and which plants won’t survive the winter outdoors. Check out this interactive map from the USDA that lets you punch in your zip code to get your precise hardiness zone. Once you’ve got your zone down, it’s time to figure out which kind of hibiscus you should focus on cultivating. There are three different popular variants, colloquially known as tropical, hardy, and the hardy shrub.
If you’re reading this from a tropical climate, living in zones 9 to 11 – think Florida, the California coast, and southern Texas – then tropical hibiscus, or hibiscus rosa-sinensis, is the plant for you. A vibrant bush that thrives in hotter climates, tropical hibiscus needs enough water, strong sun, and good soil, growing best in soil with a pH of around 6.8. If you’re unsure about your soil’s pH, it’s worth taking the time to check. These DIY methods from Preparedness Mama look like a fun, inexpensive way to make sure your soil is in the range it ought to be. Otherwise, you can buy a pH test kit like this one to get a more precise measurement. If your soil is too acidic, try adding a liming material or wood ash to it, retesting along the way to ensure the right balance. Once your soil is at the ideal pH – or as close as you can get – it’s time to start planting.
Hibiscus plants grow outward as well as up, so spacing is key. In a spot with decent sun, plant our hibiscus 3 to 6 feet apart; if your goal is a hibiscus hedge, planting between 2 and 3 feet will work as well. Remember, although these plants start small, hibiscus are fast growers when given the right conditions.
When you dig your holes, consult your plants’ root balls. Over at Hunker, a DIY and design site, they recommend planting the root bulbs of a hibiscus plant in a hole about as deep as the root ball, and 2 to 3 times as wide. Once planted, it’s crucial to keep the soil moist, but not wet. If you live in Florida, this shouldn’t be a problem, but for drier climates, be vigilant in your watering to make sure your budding hibiscus is as happy as possible.
If you live outside of the tropical zones, there’s still hope. Tropical hibiscus can thrive potted, too. To have a lush potted hibiscus, maintain the same caution in terms of soil pH and moisture. While your hibiscus won’t get as large, it can still be happy. And the good news is that pH, temperature, and moisture are all easier to control in a pot. For the ideal soil blend, Jenny Harrington over at Garden Guides recommends blending your own soil, using “two parts sandy loam, one part river sand, one part compost, and one part peat moss.” Once you have the ideal soil, bury the root ball until the soil is just covering it. After, keep it watered and well-drained, remembering to empty the drip tray after every water to avoid root rot, and move your hibiscus to the sunniest window or, weather permitting, a space on the porch.
But if the potted route doesn’t appeal to you, and you’re really pulling for a hibiscus plant in your yard, you’re in luck! The hardy hibiscus, or hibiscus moscheutos, is an excellent, perennial variety for any yard in more temperate climates with snowy winters. Their flowers bloom in late July or early August, and still provide that vibrant pop of color in your yard. The only drawback is that they have one significant difference from their tropical counterparts: in winter, the plant dies back to the roots. Technically, this variety is an herbaceous perennial, similar to mint, and won’t stretch to the impressive heights of tropical hibiscus. If the smaller, hardy hibiscus appeals to your garden aesthetic, plant them directly into the soil in spring, or at least two weeks before the first big frost. And unlike tropical hibiscus, the hardy hibiscus prefers slightly acidic soil. Adding the right compost will go a long way in ensuring your hibiscus pokes its head out to grace your yard after a long winter. For an optimal blooming season, keep them well-watered, and avoid letting them dry out.
However, if the idea of your hibiscus dying back each winter is discouraging, and you’re looking for the might and size of a larger, flowering bush, then the Rose of Sharon, or hibiscus syriacus, is a great choice. Growing anywhere from 4 to 12 feet, the Rose of Sharon is remarkably hardy, and thrives best in zones 5 to 9. Of the three types of hibiscus, the Rose of Sharon is the most robust by a long shot, and is known especially for its adaptability to polluted areas and drought, making it an ideal candidate for urban gardens like those decorating front yards in Denver’s Wash Park neighborhood. Although the flowers are significantly smaller, they are abundant, and your garden will have a wealth of blossoms.
In most regions of the United States, one of these three varieties can thrive, directly in the earth or in a well-lit window. Which variety works best for your home? Do you have a favorite of the three? Let us know in the comments below!