In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
January, 2009
Regional Report

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It's spring in January with star magnolias blooming in Savannah, Georgia.

Unavoidable Bad Timing

Like polishing your shoes and promptly stepping in mud, one's timing can be off without incurring permanent damage. The shoes can be repolished, so you shouldn't berate yourself excessively. Still, there may something in looking where you step on future jaunts. Likewise, some plants suffer from bad timing despite your good efforts. Winter weather in our regions can be quite cold, usually but briefly, and many plants can take a hit. Luckily, there are often steps to take that can help prepare for the inevitable challenges and ameliorate their effects.

Warm Winter
On a recent trip to Savannah, GA, I heard from everyone what a pleasant winter it has been. Indeed, azaleas were blooming alongside the expected camellias and many lawns were quite green. Pyracanthas hadn't been touched yet by the birds, a testament to the bounty available this year. The downside of a mild winter can be early flowering and fruiting vulnerable to later freezes. For example, deciduous magnolias begin to bloom in response to warm weather, then get their flowers browned by dropping temperatures.

Gardeners are wise to choose varieties that are considered late-blooming, and to prune Japanese and star magnolias annually after flowering to maintain strong canopy branches. Limit mulch at the base of these trees to give them the opportunity to harden off as much as possible.

Early blueberry varieties can bloom prematurely, too, after a few warm weeks. Protecting them is a great challenge to commercial growers, but you can purchase sacks made of special fabric to drop over the bushes on nights cold enough to damage the flowers. Some of these devices have drawstrings to enable you to tuck the material snugly around their base for a great windbreak.

Wet Cold
We've all seen footage of strawberry fields and citrus orchards with sprinklers running full blast as freezing weather approaches. You understand that the coating of water freezes instead of the plant material itself and so protects the crop. That principle is in effect in every home landscape, too. Dehydrated plant material freezes first, but it's impractical to wet down everything. A better practice is to be sure nothing dries out excessively in the first place, and to protect the most vulnerable. For example, thin-leaved annuals in pots will dry out much faster than a holly bush and so will need water more often to prevent cold weather damage. Still, dried-out shrubs are more likely to freeze and so crack at their bases than those irrigated even occasionally.

Adapt or Not
The best news in a mild winter is the sun on your arms as you plant peas and potatoes. The bad news is the relentless march of fire ants and other pests that are at least deterred by cold spells. The majority of the plants we grow are able to adapt to warm winters so long as they are not excessively stressed by other factors. Impossible choices in plant variety and soil conditions, poor watering habits, and wind exposure make any plant more susceptible to natural stressors. With simple good gardening, however, most can bounce back. Butterfly bushes and vitex can begin to grow, be killed back, then pruned and still recover to bloom by August. Wisteria and hydrangea can lose some buds to a freeze and still put on plenty of flowers. Crepe myrtle can start to grow and then suffer tip burn yet bloom all summer. Even delicate-looking pansies can look melted one cold morning and perk up by afternoon. Keep an eye on your garden and the weather, don't panic, but do take steps to protect vulnerable plants from a mild winter's cold surprises.


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