Gardening Blog

Lowcountry Garden: The big freeze that never was

For the past six weeks our window view at the breakfast table is of this punchy pink flowering azalea sporting one outsize white flower.
For the past six weeks our window view at the breakfast table is of this punchy pink flowering azalea sporting one outsize white flower.

Flashback 30 years ago. It's Christmas Eve and the paper whites in their water-filled containers on the back porch have budded up. Come Christmas morning they lay on the floor amidst ice, water and broken dishes.

The temperature outside was in the teens. Oleanders in the garden were brown; fronds of the Norfolk pine hung limp and lifeless. Pittosporum, podocarpus and the hedge of ligustrum plants displayed freezer burn. They would subsequently be cut to the ground.

I pictured my winter garden in New Jersey and how plants that appeared dead, came back in spring. Plants here began to show life signs in March, and with encouragement from me -- water and fertilizer -- they soon reached their previous sizes. The Norfolk pine went into compost; since then, the compost pile has received three more, but not this year; he's lookin' good.

This winter was over for gardeners on March 15. It is the first winter to record that there was not even a slight freeze in many Lowcountry coastal gardens. It has been great fun. Each day I've managed to have at least one hour to gather leaves and fallen blossoms, to trim vigorously growing shrubs, to admire azaleas blooming in February and still flowering in March. This long-blooming period is likely due to their blooming early when days and nights are still cool. Our camellias have never been showier; there was no frost to singe and burn the flowers' edges.

Yesterday I stood quietly watching bumblebees attack still-lingering flowers on Carolina crown beard. Butterfly weed is flowering yet; the Monarch butterflies visited in February. Summer flowers of vinca and scaeviola still bloom; the succulent Mother of Thousands has produced more plants without leaving the garden. The very tropical hydrangeas and naranjilla (solanum quitoense), that I call "nail plants" for their 2-foot long leaves with long spikes coming out of the leaf, have come to life; as have last summer's hanging baskets of impatiens that flower yet, and baskets of petunias that must be watered every other day just as you do in summer.

After much thought and visits to other gardens, I'm nominating semperflorens begonias as the best all around flowering plant for the garden. It never stops blooming happily in full sun, part shade, garden beds, baskets or containers, in July heat and January cold, with little water or fertilizer or dead-heading, and animals don't dig it up or eat it.

What did we learn from this -- mildest of them all -- winter? That native plants are not impressed. Nope, they don't give a flyover whether it's January cold or February mild. They've their own schedule and they are going to stick to it. The rhododendron prinophyllum (roseshell azalea) is beginning to bloom in mid-March; the R. austrinum (Florida flame azalea) is all budded up for its April debut. Most of the native wild plants are sleeping still. Exceptions are golden rod that never went dormant, and the early spring chickweed that is beginning to come up in containers planted with flowering shrimp plant. A useful plant, chickweed is high in vitamin C and phosphorus; I eat it in salad and sandwiches or in a pesto with basil or parsley. It aids digestion and was once considered a preventer of obesity.

There are many native plants in my yard; they spread rapidly. They're striking in bloom and so easy to care for that I've often wondered why more gardeners don't grow them. At a recent Hilton Head Island Beautification Association meeting, I asked several members, what is their take on this?

Suzy Baldwin: "People want their front yards enhanced with striking plants. If you just use natives it looks scruffy."

George Westerfield: "People want entrances to be impressive 365 days of the year."

Tom Kurtz "They're easy to grow, but sometimes invasive."

Steve Tennet: "Every place has a place for native plants."

It's a crazy world. We see it our gardens and yards every day. Last week at the town Xeriscape Garden I spotted a lyre-leaf sage in bloom.

"Hey," I asked. "Don't you know you're suppose to flower in autumn?"

Case closed.

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