Field Notes 28

Southeast BY FELDER RUSHING/Jackson, Mississippi, Zone 8

Our Seven Seasons

SOUTHEASTERN GARDENERS can savor at least seven subtly overlapping but distinct gardening seasons, thereby partaking in a horticultural equivalent of the Slow Food eating philosophy.

Though a heating mat in my little lean-to greenhouse is helping ameliorate the current fickle weather—summer seedlings are already up and trembling for their chance in the sun—the starting point in this sequence of seasons is just past January and February, which the late North Carolina garden author Elizabeth Lawrence called “our two months of winter.” This midwinter, architectural, “bare branches and bark” season keeps us on our toes expecting sudden deep freezes to waste our magnificent Camellia japonicas, fragrant paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta), and sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans).

The second season is when flowering shrubs pique our interest—flowering quince, forsythia, and mahonia, moving up quickly into mid-story flowering buckeye, ornamental pears, Japanese and star magnolias, and redbuds (pictured). The next season, riskiest of them all, usually brings a “blackberry winter”—the late frost that always seems to catch us and our too-early tomatoes by surprise. It’s a reminder that summer is still a long way off. Irises, wild-flowers, and the unfurling foliage of cannas and ferns get our hopes up. Worst of all, we get intoxicated by wisteria, dogwoods, oriental magnolias, and azaleas—breathlessly exotic but fickle beauties that remind me of the party girls from Mount Pilot on the old Andy Griffith show: gaudy to behold, but usually nothing but trouble. Could it be that these plants cause a late freeze?

By the fourth season, the lawn is up and running and choked with late-winter weeds (henbit, wild garlic, oxalis, dandelion). Pansies begin to burn out in the heat, but it’s still only a transition to summer with amaryllis, daylilies, southern magnolia, and verbena. The fifth season lasts the rest of the summer, with crape myrtles, vitex, lots of perennials, and taller summer annuals. This is when okra, squash, and tomatoes start coming in. The sixth season is when summer starts to test our mettle and wear us out. The lawn is becoming a chore and in need of water, yet it’s time to plant a second fall crop of flowers, tomatoes, and peppers. Bugs begin to get the upper hand, but it’s too hot to spray.

The seventh season brings a hint of coolness and fall color in the trees. Lots of summer plants still hang on, and native goldenrod and narrow-leaf sunflowers get frosted. Camellia sasanqua comes into flower, and a merciful hard freeze finishes off the cannas and tomatoes. Time to plant pansies and daffodils, to egg on the coming of winter.

So, as you launch into a frenzy of spring planting, remember: spring is a mere transition. Relax, and don’t let the “party girls” rush the season, or you’ll just get hot and upset everyone around you. H

To do in the garden

  • To avoid digging up precious jewels later in the season, place subtle markers beside spring-flowering bulbs while you still know where they are.

  • Gazing globes and glass bottle trees need occasional watering to rinse off wind-borne tree pollen that dulls their effect.

  • Wait until the lawn has been mowed at least once before feeding, or risk poor root development and cool-weather diseases.

  • If azalea leaf gall is a problem for you, take off your glasses and it will seemingly disappear, thus saving you from having to use fungicides.

Worth growing

Coral honeysuckle Lonicera sempervirens

This noninvasive native vine comes into bloom just as hummingbirds begin returning in the late winter, providing a high-energy meal of nectar and young aphids. Loose clusters of reddish orange trumpets appear in the center of two fused leaves, followed by bright orange summer berries. Coral honeysuckle forms an untidy cover for a lattice screen, short trellis, or mailbox. ‘Sulphurea” has yellowish flowers, ‘Superba” is bright scarlet, and ‘Magnifica” has large, bright red flowers; all grow best in rich, woodsy soil with summer mulch. Hardy in USDA Zones 4–9. Sources, page 88.

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