Plant selection and care in the Alabama climate


This past week has brought us a plethora of what I call “typical Alabama spring weather” if there is such a thing.  We have seen temperatures ranging all the way from the lower 30’s during the latter part of the week all the way up into the 70’s, and let’s not even talk about the excessive rain, flooding, and tornadoes.  This latest cold snap (which if we continue our “typical” weather pattern may not be our last) leads me to a couple words of advice about plant selection and care.  First and foremost whatever type of plant you are putting into your gardens, yards, or landscapes make sure that it is zoned for our climate.  Walker county is a USDA hardiness zone 7a and 7b depending on what part of the county you are in.  Plants that are zoned for USDA hardiness zone 8 or above will generally suffer severe winter damage due to our climate here; while plants zoned 6 or lower will generally struggle mightily in our summer heat.

Keep in mind that tender herbaceous annuals are most often the plants that are severely bitten back or outright killed during these cold weather snaps.  They will need extra protection or covering if indeed there is more freezing or near freezing weather coming our way.  I keep a supply of “extra” one to three gallon planting containers, milk jugs, two liter soda bottles, etc on hand as they make excellent temporary covers for smaller plants.  Larger plants can also be covered with sheets, lightweight blankets, or if nothing else is available plastic will work if you are careful with it.  Make sure that your covering is not touching the plant or else you will lose the insulation that the cover provides.  This is especially true for plastic covers which can actually scorch plants when the sun comes up.  Also make sure that you get good soil to soil contact on all sides of the plant as your covering actually catches radiated heat from the soil to help protect your plants.

Our larger woody perennial plants, trees, etc should withstand the cold snaps in good shape with only some minor leaf or shoot damage or the loss of some of the blooms.  Although we don’t like to lose blooms from our landscape plants, the tree or shrub should recover.

This brings me to my final point about protecting your plants from cold damage.  Avoid the temptation to fertilize in the late fall (except for winter annuals and cool season turfgrass such as fescue) and also avoid fertilizing too early in the spring.  Young tender growth sparked by poor timing of your fertilizer application is much more likely to be damaged by cold weather.  Keep your plants well watered prior to anticipated cold or freeze events and apply a layer of mulch such as pine straw or shredded bark mulch to help protect the most important part of your woody plants and ornamentals, its root system.

As you are reading this column, we also mark another important event.  It is Easter Sunday!  A very common sight around Easter in addition to new Easter frocks, baskets, and colored eggs are Easter Lilies that are commonly sold around this time of year.

Easter lilies are native to the coastal regions of Japan and were introduced here in the early to mid 1800’s.  They bloom with white flowers with yellow anthers growing from the middle of the bloom.  While most folks think the yellow anthers add to the beauty of their Easter lily, you can remove them as soon as the bloom opens to increase the length of the bloom.  Take care when and if you decide to remove the yellow anthers as they can stain clothing and other light colored materials.

The foliage of Easter lilies is thin and waxy and the leaves extend outward from the central stem or “stalk” as it is called.  The flowers are large trumpet shaped flowers that extend from all sides of the top of the plant.  Easter lilies can have as few as three or up to about eight such flowers per stalk.  An interesting trivial tidbit is that Easter lilies were once called “gun lilies” because of the shape of their bloom…I prefer to think of them as trumpet shaped not gun shaped though.

After bringing your Easter lily home, you need to do a few essential things to keep it healthy and blooming for as long as possible.  Most people are pretty lucky to get two to three weeks of bloom time even under good conditions and care.  Bright indirect light is best for your lily.  Too much direct sunlight can cause the blooms to fade prematurely.  Just outside of a Southern or Eastern window facing would be a good location.

You should water your lily only as it needs it, that is to say as the potting media begins to become visibly dry.  Overwatering is the most sure way to cause problems for your lily.  Many people ask me about fertilizer for their potted Easter lilies.  Actually fertilizer is not even a concern as your lily will not need additional fertilizer.

Lilies will survive and perform best when kept at a temperature of 60 degrees minimum and 75 degrees maximum, for most of us our regular house temperature is fine.   Remove any dead leaves and spent blooms from your lily as soon as they are noticed.

Easter lily is not very cold hardy and is somewhat unreliable at best when you attempt to transplant them outdoors in our Alabama climate.  It will be best for most of us to enjoy our Easter lilies indoors as long as they will bloom and grow then discard them and purchase a new lily next Easter season.  If you are like me and like to try things our gardening wise anyway, once the blooms shed from your Easter lily plant them about four inches deep in a rich well-drained area of your garden or landscape that gets some protection from North winds.  Also try to avoid planting them in low lying areas as colder air tends to settle in lower areas.  With a little bit of luck and some mild winter temperatures, you may just be rewarded with an Easter lily that you can enjoy in the future.