Maintaining Tropical Hibiscus In South Louisiana.... by Buddy Short

Paul Buddy Short is an experienced hibiscus grower, an active member of the National American Hibiscus Society and the local Mike Bernard Acadiana Hibiscus Chapter.

It is my belief, and also my opinion, that properly maintaining your tropical hibiscus in South Louisiana breaks down into 6 basic categories. The following are my thoughts on each of these 6 subjects. These ideas are what I do today to maintain my plants and should I change my opinion or procedure in any area I will let you know of that change. 

I am often asked many questions about my plants and to offer suggestions to my listeners about their own personal maintenance. I am always willing to help but I first offer the following as a good opening statement. "Only purchase as many plants as you are willing, or able, to properly maintain!" That to me is the key.

Follow these 6 Basic Suggestions and I believe your plants will be healthier and provide you with many happy moments in the future..........
  
1) Information.......since there are multiple sources for ongoing information you must first recognize that most books or articles are written for the masses. This in itself makes the information general in nature and not specific to where you live. I believe that whatever information you use as your basis for a procedure it must be specific to our climate in South Louisiana. Even your Hibiscus Handbook and your quarterly Seed Pod magazine should be reviewed and adjusted for the location of the presenter. To me this is essential to maintaining a healthy plant in our climate.
  
Suggestion......There is a Yahoo Group address for hibiscus growers. Newcomers, as well as veterans, can ask questions or even offer advice to others. This service comes free of charge and I would encourage all members to sign up by emailing [email protected]. Your subject line should read....sign me up. That's all you have to do. If you have a specific question, be sure you state where you live and ask someone from your area to respond. This is a great resource and one that each of you can use to further your knowledge.
 
If all else fails then contact me by email or phone (337) 232-2446 . By now each of you should realize that I am here to help you.......and I want to!
  
2) Pots...most individuals that grow tropical hibiscus in South Louisiana should be concerned with one important part of that pot. How well does this pot drain? Nothing else! To me, that translates into, how big are the drainage holes and how many holes does that pot have? Today I maintain most of my plants in 3 gallon pots. I have used many different ones throughout my growing experience but at this time I have settled on a pot from Wal-Mart or I simply use the old standard black pot. If you don't think your pots have enough drainage holes then purchase a hand drill and drill some additional holes in your pots. Once again the key is good drainage. That may be the most important basic of all 6.
  
3) Potting Mix...In the words of our resident expert Bobby Dupont, "If it's working, then don't change it!" Great advice! Today after much trial and error, I have settled on the regular potting mix put out by Miracle Grow. Additionally I purchase a bag of perlite and a bag of orchid mix and add them to my mix as needed. No, I do not have a formula. It's just a feel thing for me. I put it all in a big pot and mix it up. I am also experimenting with some rubber mulch with the same purpose in mind: aeration and good drainage. So far I am extremely pleased with the results of the rubber mulch. It is doing EXACTLY what I was looking for.
  
I have been told that a rose mix works well also but I have not tried it. 
  
4) Watering...this may be the most misunderstood basic of all 6 and I believe this may be mostly responsible for killing many or most potted plants.
  
Here's a scenario: you walk outside to get in your car to head to work. Before you get in your car you walk past your hibiscus and all of a sudden you see a drooping plant. You quickly grab your hose or water bucket and water your plant thoroughly. You are now satisfied you have solved your issue and you head to work. Your work day is now over and you head home. Again you walk past your plant and your drooping plant has not recovered. In fact, it looks worse! Have you got the picture and haven't we all done exactly that? Unfortunately your plant was telling you that she was TOO WET not that she was thirsty. You have now compounded the problem and have made the situation worse. Your plant is now on a fast road to Hibiscus Heaven. 
  
The next time this happens........STOP.......don't pick up that hose. Go over first and pick up that pot. If it is thirsty, then no matter who you are, you will be able to pick it up very easily. At that point, by all means, go get the hose.
  
If on the other hand, your pot is heavy then it is telling you that it is retaining too much moisture and immediate action is necessary if you are to survive your plant. Pull your plant out of your pot and examine the bottom of your potting mix. If it is too wet, you will immediately notice it and corrective action is imperative. This is what I want you to do. First, examine the holes in the bottom of your pot. They may be stopped up and causing your problem. If the holes are not allowing water to run out, it may be necessary to re-drill the holes. (as stated before, a good hand drill is a great tool). Put some holes on the sides as well. That can not hurt your plant.) Now that you have determined that moisture is your culprit then elevate your plant off the ground and allow it to dry out. It will like you for doing that. Another possibility is to wash off the roots and completely start over with fresh potting mix. You'll know soon enough if any of this worked. 
  
Here's an additional suggestion that works for me. I pay close attention to how quickly my water is absorbed into my potting mix. If it sits on top of the soil and doesn't go down then I poke several holes in the top layer so that it can be absorbed. Sometimes in our climate the top of your mix gets crusty and will not allow that water to go down. Break that crust and maybe even isolate that plant from the others so that you can keep a close eye on it. If this persists then you may want to repot your plant.
  
If none of this works and you can't revive your plant then make certain that you've at least learned a lesson and won't do that again.
  
It is my contention that more plants are lost to too much moisture than have ever been lost to becoming too dry.
  
5) Fertilizer...most experts will tell you that tropical hibiscus like high potassium (the last number) and low phosphorous (the middle number). Pay attention to the 3 readings of the fertilizer you use and look for those that correspond to the suggestions above. If you can't find fertilizer of this nature then look for one that is balanced. I noted recently that Home Depot had a balanced granular fertilizer called Osmocote (14-14-14. Green) Follow the directions and remember that during the growing/flowering season, tropical hibiscus like to be fed often even if it is in minimum doses.
  
I also use a once monthly application of Epsom Salts. That is easily found and can be spread by hose application or by simple putting some down in the base of your pots. I also use a compound called Messenger. That may be unnecessary for most of you. The Epsom Salts will turn your leaves dark green. To me, that makes them look extremely healthy.
  
6) Insect Control...there are many products available to prevent an insect infestation. I have tried many and have finally settled on one product for the majority of my problems. Depending on the number of plants you are trying to maintain, Triazicide gives multiple choices for you to choose from. I believe in "preventative maintenance" so I attempt to prevent insect attacks as much as possible. To do this I use a granular form of Triazicide in the base of my pots. If that has not worked as well as I would like and, I see ants on any of my plants, then I will go to either an individual application of Triazicide in a squirt bottle or I will use an aerosol can of Rose Pride by Ortho (used to be called Orthonex) for a fogger spray. (make sure you are outside)
  
Because of the number of plants I collect, it is necessary for me to make a broad application of Triazicide hooked to the hose. I do this probably 3 times a year.
  
For those of you who don't use chemicals, or are possibly allergic to them, the easiest method for you is a good old blast from the hose. Most of your critters will be knocked off. The bad news is you didn't kill them and chances are they will be back.
  
Conclusion.......In my opinion, these 6 basics should allow you to maintain your plants in a successful manner. 1) remember to always select information that is specific to your area 2) make sure that regardless of what kind of pots you use that the drainage holes are large and numerous 3) pick a potting mix that works best for you. You may have to try several before you settle on just one. 4) before you water.....pick up that pot.....That is more important than you realize 5) feed your babies often and start paying close attention to the 3 reading on your fertilizer 6) practice preventative insect control and remember that a good blast from the hose is good too.
  
So there you have it, 6 simple and basic areas to follow. If you will follow those guidelines your plants will look healthy and they will show their appreciation often with many beautiful blooms for your pleasure. After all, isn't that why we are all "Hooked on Hibiscus?"