Chicken Soup for the Garden(er?)
(All photos in the text are of Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide,’ a very large, 20-year-old shrub that has bloomed prolifically and dependably but is now in a precarious battle for survival.)
Weather! Weather! Weather! We complain. Plants thrive.
Will this rainy weather breathe life into moribund plants?
From what we’ve seen, azaleas, pittosporum, camellias, oleander, gardenias, some crepe myrtles and weak trees seem to be the biggest losers this winter, though our craggy, battered old oak is looking better than ever. Most of these plants in our zone 8A are living on the edge of their comfort zones. Usually happy, they were whammied this winter.
Do we have a plan of action? Not now. Eventually we will work one out for each sick plant. This gives us time to adjust to losses and figure out strategies. While there is a plant in the ground, there is hope.
So, for the moment, we are watching and waiting. This is what I tell gardeners when they ask, and they rather like this advice. It requires little immediate work, and it postpones making decisions.
How patient should we be? We’ll wait till fall, the season of renewal, when marginal plants might come to life. Depending on how a plant looks (a deadnik next to the front door may need to be chopped out to restore a gardener’s spirits) we may postpone action until early next spring. We are gardeners in the South, not stock brokers in the City, so we don’t rush.
Trees and shrubs carry a lot more baggage than seeds. If seeds from plants in my garden can sprout after lying dormant for years, surely I can give some slack to shrubs that have performed well. It’s an apples to oranges comparison, I know, but it suits my fancy now. And Mother Nature does have a quirky sort of patience.
Soil temperature must be in balance with air temperature for proper growth to occur. Roots in cold soil are still sleepy. They can’t keep up with the needs of top growth on a warm day. That is why you sometimes see plants wilting on a pleasant day in spring after a cool rain the previous night has put a sparkle in the garden. Sluggish roots in cool soil are slow to hear SOS put out by tops that are jazzed for growing. We see this most often in tender new growth.
In particular, we’ve seen bright new azalea leaves topping old brown ones, making for showy plants, and some leafless azaleas actually put out bloom despite their nakedness. I am hoping they are not putting best foot forward now only to fall on face in hot summer.
Right now we are using the bend-and-snap test to determine life in masses of dead pittosporum branches. If a twig snaps when it’s bent, oh well, it was probably dead. If it doesn’t seem to mind being bent, we leave it for a later try.
Pittosporum will be a challenge to shape when it finally comes around. There’s new growth on tips of skeletonized branches and tiny leaves coming out of heavy old wood. What to prune out? What to leave? This new growth popping out from heavy wood is slow and easy to miss, but like the tortoise, it usually wins the race. Epicormic budding, this is called. Dormant buds beneath the bark become active in times of stress. It’s another strategy for survival.
Gardenias and oleander still look like a patchwork of green and brown: life at their bases, maybe some along branches, and some on tips of twigs. More decisions and more pruning challenges. Shocked crepe myrtles are growing at their bases, or, happily, they have come through like champs and sport the shiniest, healthiest leaves I’ve seen in a decade.
As for camellias, I am a faithful bud-checker. This is an exciting garden pastime, though not necessarily one that would perk up lagging conversation at a cocktail party. I check plants for growth buds from August on, even earlier, as I walk the garden to see how plants are preparing for next year. These buds will stay tightly wrapped until they flush out next spring. Leaf buds are slender, flower buds are round, though on other types of plants, buds can neatly package both.
New leaf buds should be smooth and shiny and firm. On stricken plants, buds formed last year are dried up or gone, leaving stubs at the ends of branches. I have found what appear to be new leaf buds, but they are small and sickly and they drop off when I touch them. If leaves emerge from these buds, they are stunted. Kinda dashes your hopes when you cheer a live one and it turns out to be a dud. But even when tops die off, camellias can come back from the base.
Scraping the bark to see if a plant is still alive is OCD behavior for me in February, though I haven’t killed a plant that way yet. This spring, it has not been a reliable test. Inner bark and fresh-cut ends of twigs may show a hopeful green, but a later check will show no color as the plant continues dying back. More dashed hopes.
Still, all this rain seems to be apologizing for the cold winter. It’s giving plants the best chance they could want. We soldier on with our TLC.
We give plants handsful of compost, but little if any fertilizer (too rich for a sick plant).
We scatter a mixture of dry leaves and pine needles that have fallen since last fall, a light mulch now that soil is finally warming. (Crumbling leaves will compost, and tough pine needles will give cover during hot days.)
We’ll stand hose-in-hand lavishing drinks of water on rickety plants during dry spells, until run-off tells us to stop, give time for the water to soak in, then give another drink.
Chicken soup for the garden. Chicken soup for the gardener’s spirits.
The Parade of Bloom in May, particularly Japanese, native swamp, Siberian and Louisiana iris, poppies, deutzia, spirea, native wisteria ‘Amethyst Falls’ and Missouri sunflower are good for the spirits, too. Herewith some pink Knockout roses and a slide show of happy pictures.