Harsh winter weather creates sad state of affairs in Lowcountry gardens

bajslj@aol.comFebruary 2, 2014 

After the wind died, I bundled up and cautiously stepped outside. I made my way around a potted geranium plant that looks like an elephant sat on it and proceeded to my collection of Lowcountry flowering winter plants. My favorite is of the variety Diascia; there are two, and they are dead.

Why did I not cover them? Because I'd spent three hours covering the plants I thought more tender. Because I did not believe our outdoor temperature would sink into the 20s. That sort of sadness has not happened here in 16 years.

I advanced to the lean-to greenhouse with fingers crossed. I had set the heater on "warm medium;" I am not, after all, breeding plants, I'm just trying to keep them alive. It turned out to be a partial failure -- four coleus plants gone. The coleus were close to the glass as were the orchids that survived. One hanging basket of impatiens died, two others did not. As I have long suspected, croton plants are right up there at the top of the hardiness list; three in the greenhouse were putting out new growth.

Back outdoors, I steeled myself as I approached a camellia tree. I expected to see a bud blast and I did, along with brown and soggy flowers. There's a blackened gardenia shrub, and many years old azaleas with brown leaves. I could not locate flower buds, which is good news -- they may show in February.

Is there no more good news? There is, and of all plants, I discover a stand, or grouping, of Aspidistra that is bright green and erect, as it should be. Aspidistra, or cast iron plant, was introduced here from China in 1824, and quickly became the parlor plant to have. Its rich, green leaves were neat and elegant and required little care. Today's Aspidistra leaves can be variegated, striped, spotted and blazed ranging in size from elephantine to elfin. Used outside as groundcover, the plant spreads slowly from creeping rhizomes, producing two to three new leaves. Aspidistra plants do flower, mine do not, as they receive little sun and are not fed. They grow vigorously and require occasional pruning.

I don't give up easily. Fingers are crossed that our local garden centers will have Diascia plants in stock again in late winter. Diascia or twinspur comes in colors of tangerine, mango, peach, apricot and, my favorite, salmon. They make great companions in pots for spiky plants, and are perfect in hanging baskets as they droop gracefully over the edges. They do not cease flowering, continuing to provide color until hot weather brings them down, usually in June.

Hydrangeas macrophylla can take temperatures below freezing without leaf drop or flower bud loss. I have two Hydrangeas Endless Summer that have not known temperatures as low as we've had. Right now, they look awful.

As does my Lion's Tail (Leonotis ocymifolia). This bright orange exotic looking flowering shrub from South Africa provides long lasting bloom in autumn when little else is flowering.

Our spring flowering bulbs that were planted in early winter may be showing green foliage. They are not harmed by frosts -- think winter in Ohio and Vermont. They don't need snow cover, although a light cover of leaves or mulch would be welcome.

One can't help thinking about our deer. What are they going to eat? I consulted native plant expert Daniel Payne, who told me that deer prefer the new growth on plants. What we should not do is clear out all of the volunteer plants from under trees and shrubs -- leave them for the deer to eat. Unfortunately, they don't like wax myrtle.

Sixty-year master gardener and environmentalist Betsy Jukofsky has spent three decades on Hilton Head Island learning the peculiarities of Coastal Lowcountry gardening.

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