• 66°

Planting in the South is really about timing

Hunkering down like Minnesotans in a snowstorm might be the way to go for gardening in our torrid summers.

Gardeners aren’t farmers; one way to avoid suffering during our long dry spells, insufferable humidity, and all-night heat is to garden in the opposite season of how we were raised.

To set this up, I got asked the other day about the difference between how I garden in both Mississippi and England. Answer is, not much, except plant choices.

Unlike Mississippi, England cools down at night in the summer, so they can grow a whole bunch of garden favorites like peonies, lilacs, fuchsias and lupines that suffer in our August’s 80 degrees at 3 in the morning. On the other hand, English summers are too cool for decent okra or sweet potatoes, and crape myrtles stay covered in mildew.

But though our climates dictate different plant palettes, gardening itself is basically the same. It’s still about digging a hole and putting something in it green side up, then watering until it gets rooted enough to make it on its own. There are all sorts of subtleties of course, such as mulching, weeding, fertilizing, pruning, controlling pests, on and on. And dragging water hoses hither and yon.

Oh, and replanting stuff that doesn’t want to grow there in the first place.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, if you plan ahead by choosing well-adapted plants to begin with and gradually replace those weenies that can’t cut the mustard. I mean, who actually waters summer-flowering striped monkey grass?

The real difference is in timing — at least with savvy gardeners. Folks up North and in Europe basically plant in the spring and tend it until fall, then sit out the cold winter until starting over the next spring. We can easily do the opposite.

Perfect examples: Snapdragons, pansies, kale and hollyhocks grow well all spring, summer and fall in cooler climates, but freeze in the winter; here, we have to plant them in the fall for winter color and accept that they will die in our early summer heat.

Now that I’m older, busier and lazier, I’ve mostly adopted a new strategy for dealing with our climate. I approach it like Northerners do their winters by avoiding it as best I can by planting mostly in the cool weather, and try to just squeak through the summer. 

It’s smarter to plant in the fall and winter so plants get pretty well established before the next summer and in less need of watering. This leaves me to only have to set out a few heat- and drought-hardy summer annuals in the spring, then hunker down under the AC until the stifling summer eases up in the fall.

The trick is in finding plants that will make it all summer without a lot of care.

Over the decades I have searched through small towns, country gardens, and even cemeteries to note which plants can easily survive our summers with little or no watering. See for yourself with a short walk or drive around any older neighborhood.

Considering how much sun or shade you have, you can combine these tried-and-true plants into any garden design or style. Plant them in regular dirt without a lot of amendments, get them through the first summer, and they will be with you for good, without depending on artificial life support.

So, I’m pretty much done for the summer. One more good weeding and mulching, and I’ll admire my lovelies from the porch swing and get back to it when cooler weather rolls back around.

Interested in my much-vetted list of commonly grown, tried-and-true Southern garden workhorses that don’t need babying? Shoot me an email.

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