In the Garden with Felder

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Wish I had taken my own sage advice last week, to bring frost-tender plants indoors before it was too late. 

Felt pretty smug about actually getting most of them in before they froze, as opposed to my usual last-minute throwing and piling pots of stuff atop one another during a sleet storm. 

I took time during this year’s transition event to clean pots, remove fallen tree leaves and hopefully most of the lizards, and set plants strategically so for the next few months each will get the best available light coming through my windows. Made sure to position a piece of cardboard by the heater vent to shunt dry air away from the plants, lest they lose valuable humidity.

It’s not only poor lighting indoors robbing tropical plants of much-needed energy, but also our preferred lower humidity that dries leaves out more quickly than misting can help, causing burning around edges or complete defoliation. This is most obvious with weeping figs, hibiscus, bougainvillea, ferns, and potted citrus plants. 

See, once leaves fully form they become adapted to the available light and humidity; during sudden changes mature leaves become less efficient and naturally fade or shed. Luckily new growth adjusts quickly to the new conditions.

To help this along, and to head off constant sweeping of fallen leaves, I always prune my bigger plants hard when bringing them in or putting them back out. This cleans up what will shed anyway, and stimulates faster new growth; the plants just think they’ve been pruned, and by the time new growth comes out they don’t notice they’ve been moved.  

If you haven’t already done all this, there’s another chance to get it right. Unlike my usual winter garden in England where once it gets cold it stays cold, Mississippi’s cool-season weather is up and down, with two or three cold nights then weeks of tolerable nice days. So, every Autumn, soon as the first cold snap passes, we can take plants that were crammed in at the last minute back out for another chance to clean them up and sort out what will go where indoors.

As for outdoor plants, every November and December I field lots of frantic calls and emails about what to do with this plant or that. Do we cover camellia flower buds? What about emerging daffodils? 

My rule of thumb is, what has been grown for decades in small town gardens without any special care, doesn’t need any now. For the most part, except for unusually fast-forming extreme weather, most commonly-grown landscape plants can take whatever is sent their way. I never cover regular yard plants, other than throwing a plastic sheet over my zinnia patch in the fall to help me enjoy another two or three weeks of cutflowers and butterfly hosting, and sometimes covering blueberries that are flowering during a late spring frost. 

Note: It is crucial to remove or vent plastic covers when the sun comes out, or plants will quickly steam to death. Quickly. 

So, during this first hard freeze of December, the tender-looking pansies, violas, snapdragons, dusty miller, kale, and parsley did fine, and the new foliage of my cold-hardy daffodils, painted Arum, Alstroemeria, Hellebores, and camellia flowers, all which have a sort of natural antifreeze, held up perfectly well.

I cleaned up the flaccid, goo-dripping lumps of once-proud pepper and tomato plants, basil, elephant ears, cannas, begonias, and castor beans, repositioned hastily-dragged in potted plants, and faithfully cover and uncover my zinnias.  

My cabin’s sunroom is stuffed to the gills with cold refugees, the outdoor garden is hunkered down. Bring on Winter!

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.


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