Winter is finally over -- now let's count the survivors in our gardens

bajslj@aol.comApril 12, 2014 

This native Piedmont azalea flowers in early April.

LARRY JUKOFSKY, SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • An Earth Day celebration will be 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 26 in Old Town Bluffton.

This is a spring to remember ... and a winter to forget.

Despite all efforts to save container-grown plants -- moving many indoors, covering those too heavy to move -- the outdoor temperature in my Hilton Head Island yard on Jan. 6 sank to 23 degrees, and the high winds blew many covers off.

Temperatures in the 20s were last recoded in my yard 16 years ago. Lost is the large Nun's Orchid with its 11 flower spikes that showed last summer. A gift from Ed Carter, it had been propagated by him. Lost too, a Firespike, or Odontonema strictum, from the mother plant of Annemarie Kinsky. Both plants were long-flowering and very showy. The freeze took an orange and a tangerine tree; the jury is still out on a small gardenia and a weeping hibiscus.

Saddest of all was the loss of a small tropical tree that Larry and I watched grow from our kitchen window. It was planted with a seed from a tree in the San Diego Botanical Quail Garden. The seed was picked and given to me by Mike O'Brien, Larry's childhood friend who lived nearby. Mike died the same week as the tree.

But the winter is now over. Aren't we glad to have the most beautiful azalea flowering April ever? Our late cold spell may have kept the buds at bay. When it finally warmed, they exploded. Our beautiful Kurume Coral Bell azaleas, the Kurume Crimson Red azaleas, the white Satsuki Gumpo to break up all that color, collide with and dominate the dozen Southern Indica Formosas. There are more than 20 azaleas and too much Formosa, but that's what was available here in the 1970s.

I've been going wild. To me, the stars in my yard are the native azaleas. Of the 16 native azaleas that are indigenous to the United States, the Southeast has the largest number of species. The Piedmont azalea is flowering now, and I was extra happy to see the trumpet-shaped rosy pink flowers, as for the first time in its 12-year life it dropped its leaves after the freeze. It is just beginning to leaf out now. My favorite Rhododendron austrinum, also known as the Florida flame, is deciduous. It's budded up now with its fragrant, bright yellow flowers, leaves to follow.

There are surprises amongst the survivors. Who knew chrysanthemums were so hardy? My few unprotected plants show not so much as a scorched leaf. And last week an in-ground amaryllis budded up and is fixin' to flower. Honeysuckle from a Florida friend has blackened leaves with green showing, and from the same generous friend, a frost-untouched olive tree. And the winner of my frost survivor contest? It's an unprotected container grown Kumquat tree.

The late arrival of warmer weather put a stop on seed starting. They're in now -- in containers on the back deck are three varieties of tomatoes, mache lettuce, arugula and nasturtiums.

To save my knees on the wooden deck, I used plant stands built for containers, took the wires off plastic hanging baskets and filled them with soil. Deer don't visit the deck, but squirrels do. They dig and plant in all the containers there. Solution: plastic bowl covers with elastic. After the seeds emerge, I'll switch to hot peppers sprinkled on the soil.

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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