The end of a tumultuous year has many of us wishing for simpler — and seemingly better — times when we weren’t bombarded with “news” 24/7 and there was no such thing as Twitter, Facebook or “selfies.” The “good, old days” may not have been as great as we remember them, but, in a time of rampant smart phone addiction, getting back to the basics of life, love and growing plants certainly is appealing.
While it has nothing to do with growing plants, no song expresses this nostalgic sentiment better than Waylon Jennings’ and Willie Nelson’s “Luckenbach, Texas.” While they might not be feeling any pain in Luckenbach, its residents (all 3 of them) don’t have much choice but to stick with the basics.
Sticking to the horticultural basics is a good idea even if you live where there are three Super Wal-Marts in easy driving distance (cue the “Moving On Up” theme song from the 1970’s sitcom “The Jeffersons”). People who are touted to have a “green thumb” are well-versed in these foundations of good gardening — choosing plants that work in the macro and microclimates, preparing the soil well and not killing your plants with too much care and kindness.
Terms like macro and microclimate may sound like we’re trying to keep up with the Joneses, but they are straightforward concepts.
The macro or larger climate is what we think about with cold hardiness zones. The US Department of Agriculture published the latest update to this map in 2012. The Cape Fear region is mostly in zone 8a referring to minimum temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees F. But, cold hardiness is only part of the equation. While that lilac (Syringa vulgaris) might survive the ravages of a New England winter, it doesn’t fare too well in our long, hot summers. Beware of plants that list cold hardiness to zones 3 to 5. They usually will do about as well as the aforementioned lilac.
The microclimate — the specific area in the garden where the plant is growing — is even more important. Make a misstep here and you will definitely have “blue eyes cryin’ in the rain”. Think about sun, shade, drainage, soils and frost pockets. The shady north side of the house is great for camellias and fatsia but won’t provide the blazing heat and all-day sun to keep a crape myrtle blooming all summer.
You’ve probably already figured this out, but our native soils are highly variable and not particularly fertile. Some are high pH that won’t support traditional southern favorites such as azalea, gardenia and camellia. Others are coarse sands that turkey oaks and longleaf pines find acceptable but not much of anything else. And, surprising for many new transplants to the area, there are plenty of mucky, poorly-drained clays that create some of our largest horticultural challenges.
Opinions about ways to improve soil may have you feuding with your significant other like the Hatfields and McCoys. The simple answer for those coarse sands that need more water and nutrient-holding capacity is organic matter. Organic matter is also the best amendment for improving aeration and drainage in heavy clays. While it might seem logical to add sand to a clay soil to improve drainage, it is the absolute wrong thing to do. Composts, manures and shredded leaves work. If your soil pH is already high, avoid hardwood mulch and composts from hardwood sources.
Your plants will have a successful life without all the feudin’ if you keep these things in mind. And, with all of that work of figuring out the right plant, taking soil samples, amending with organic matter and rototilling until you think your shoulders are sure to pop out of their sockets, a little bit of water, light fertilization and minor corrective pruning are all that’s required to ensure a long and happy life for your plants.
Check out our website Check ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610. You can also find great local information at nhcarboretum.com and on Facebook. Just search for “New Hanover County Arboretum.” Or, stop by the Plant Clinic at the Arboretum between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Al Hight is the extension director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in New Hanover County. Contact him at 910-798-7666.