February brought some spring-like weather to our area, providing treats as well as tricks. Gardeners were treated to some wonderful days to get out and enjoy moderate temperatures and a head start on spring chores.
But tricks can accompany this unseasonably warm weather. Many of our trees and ornamental shrubs decided it was time to begin their spring show — way before it was time.
Walking through my garden, I noticed the hydrangeas were putting out little tiny leaves. A few of the Japanese maples were already budding. Almost like magic, my saucer magnolia was covered with flowers.
This tree bursts into bloom as soon as we have a warm sprint, but invariably this magnificent specimen is the first victim of a frosty night. From then on, it will stand covered with ugly, brown, mushy blooms where pale pink ones once glowed.
Regardless of the fact that we could garden in shorts in February, we should be mindful that the average last frost date for this county is April 15. Who can forget the blizzard of March 1993?
Spring, however, is the commercial season for plant shopping. Every garden shop will be packed with beautiful plants irresistible to even the most savvy gardener.
Master Gardeners preach that late fall and early winter are the best time to add trees and ornamental shrubs to the landscape, offering them a healthy, less stressful beginning. Their only job is to grow a strong root system over the winter, while being watered by winter rains.
Spring, however, screams "plant!" and plant we do. Those newly added trees and shrubs will need very careful watering over that first summer to ensure survival.
While I have been checking for plants trying to break dormancy, I also did a survey to see what I might have lost due to the combination of unending heat and drought last summer.
An unusual pieris and several azaleas fell victims. They were all special plants.
There will be others showing up as the seasons change. There are conifers in the neighborhood that were not survivors. A beautiful tree at Cane Creek Community Gardens did not make it.
Until everything in our gardens really leafs out, the full extent of the damage from summer 2016 will not be completely obvious.
I will be left with empty spots. A gardener seeing a glass as half-full realizes an empty place is an opportunity to buy a new plant.
Before buying a plant, answer these questions
Before I choose that new plant, I need to do a little homework to choose "the right plant for the right place."
• How large is the planting area? Mature height and width of the plant must figure in the equation. It is a fact of life that the little charmer in a one-gallon pot can reach 15 feet tall and half that wide.
• What are the climatic conditions for the new plant? Is the planting spot in sun or shade, or part-sun or part-shade, on the south side of the house (where a plant can bake in the sun) or on the north side where air temps are likelier to be chillier?
• Does the plant have any special needs that require extra effort on the part of the gardener? I try to avoid choosing plants that are vulnerable to disease or insects, as I prefer not to use pesticides or other chemicals in my garden.
• What are the plant’s water needs? Although a plant may be described as drought-tolerant, NO plant is drought-tolerant until it has settled in. For the first two years (or more), that plant will require tender loving care — meaning sufficient water until it is established. Once the plant has passed that milestone, there are many delightful plants that can handle our summers with nary a complaint. Seek out plants that are truly drought-tolerant in maturity. A little research can be a big help.
It is best to confine plants with high water needs to special places in the landscape. Plants with like needs should be planted together — those that are water hogs together, and those with less watering needs together. This can be difficult when the gardener is replacing a plant in an established landscape, as many plants may have over the years become fairly drought-tolerant; the newbie may have to be nurtured on its own.
Native plants to the rescue!
Native plants are a natural choice for our Southern gardens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a "native plant" as "a plant that lives or grows naturally in a particular region without direct or indirect human intervention. That definition also might apply to many ‘naturalized’ plants that were introduced long ago, but are now thriving and spreading without human intervention."
Others define a native plant as one which was here before the Europeans.
Native plants are well adapted to our growing conditions, including our soil, our weather, our rain and our insects.
A mature native plant will require less water and less work on our part to thrive.
An added benefit is that native plants provide food for our native birds, butterflies and good insects. Some believe that native wildlife prefer native plants.
The use of native plants has become even more trendy for modern-day gardeners as water concerns and the use of pesticides are issues for those concerned with our environment.
There has been a proliferation of native plant nurseries as well as increased availability of native plants in local garden shops.
Locally, the Tree Amigos plant sale on April 8 and the Longleaf Botanical Gardens plant sale on April 21-22 will highlight native plants suitable for our area.
A few native plants to consider
Wax myrtle (Myrica/morella cerifera) could be considered a large shrub to small tree. It has wonderful shiny green evergreen foliage with a delightful smell.
Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), the state flower of South Carolina, is a great evergreen vine for a fence or a groundcover on a slope. The springtime yellow flowers make this tough native plant even more special.
Maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) has spring blooms, fall color, the ability to grow in dry shade and fruit loved by birds, making this native a must have for our gardens.
Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) are an integral part of a summer flower garden. Cultivars range from dwarf to 10 feet. They are tough; mine sailed through last summer’s drought. The white panicles on this beloved plant, the state wildflower of Alabama, turn a pale shade of pink and the leaves take on a purple cast as summer turns to fall.
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is another beauty with its clusters of very showy flowers and its evergreen foliage.
Dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) could be described as bulletproof. Nothing seems to bother this ornamental shrub with evergreen foliage. A mature dwarf yaupon holly fits in just about anywhere; mature size is about 5 feet high and almost that wide. (Although it is called a holly, it has no wicked sharp leaves).
Native azaleas (Rhododendron austrinum) have yellow or orange blossoms which merit the word "gorgeous" when in spring bloom. The rest of the year it is a deciduous shrub that fades into the background.
Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), a deciduous small tree, is lovely with its white blooms that resemble fringe. It is an absolute delight in the garden.
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) sports fragrant white blooms in spring and great color in fall. This deciduous shrub can spread vigorously, so it needs to be placed where it has room to roam.
There are also many non-natives that can be categorized as drought-proof when completely established; for example, mature camellias are amazingly drought-tolerant.
You are sad. Plants died. Spend a minute grieving and then choose another. Pick the right one, and in a year that empty spot will be filled with something else to love.
Sherry Blanton is a member of the Calhoun County Master Gardeners Association. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.