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The winter blues

By Louisa Cameron

Our garden still has not recovered from Hurricane Ian. We have damaged fences and will have more collateral damage to plant material when they are repaired. We lost several Italian cypresses from the high winds and ended up cutting down a ripped and torn quartet of these trees that had not fared well anyway from a lack of strong light. Then, over the Christmas holiday, we suffered three days of below freezing temperatures and the garden is now brown and droopy.

What recovery steps can we take with the plants? The hibiscus is probably completely dead, but we will wait for spring. Using a knife, I have cut back the soggy remains of elephant ears, canna lilies, and other soft-leaved tropicals, and piled them up for compost. There’s a lot of bracken that can be cut to the ground and thinned. It will return with a vengeance. The Eomecon, a lovely shade thug with flowers that look like anemones, is untouched. It’s fine to cut to the ground any Japanese iris that has frozen leaves, as these are usually cut back anyway in late autumn. Azaleas and camellias should be fine. We have probably lost a great many silver germander plants that form patterns in our three parterres and I hope we can find a reliable substitute, as we have lost too many to heat and cold and either too much or too little water over the years. The germander also grows too rapidly among the boxwood and looks fuzzy unless it is frequently clipped; a job that is usually mine and I find the smell of the plant repulsive. We have more than a dozen loropetalum placed in a regular pattern throughout the garden and it seems to have fared well. It does have a tendency to just “up and die” but it is easily replaced.

Several sources state that it is best to cut away dead leaves from improved Meyer lemon trees, as these leaves, if left on the tree, can attract disease. Once spring growth has started, any dead branches should be removed. Outdoor lemon trees need to be protected from freezing temperatures and the best way to do this is to put a light or lights under blankets or other types of cloths that cover the entire tree, removing the cover during the day, especially if it’s sunny, and watering well. One source suggests wrapping the trunk with light cardboard or brown paper in addition to covering the tree. Our two trees were covered and lit, but we still do not know the extent of the damage.

The roses and the fig trees are always pruned in February. They are slow to start putting out new growth and will wait for warmer weather. Crape myrtles are also pruned in February, as they are summer flowering trees and bloom on new growth. But we are going to let the hydrangeas, the lantana, the brunfelsia (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow plants), and the other severely damaged shrubs keep their drab brown coats as insulation from more cold and won’t give them a good pruning until after all danger of frost. Our average date of last frost is the middle of March, which seems like such a long time to wait, but I remember ice and snow at the end of March about 40 years ago. In our first house and so happy to have a place for plants, I had splurged and filled the large box outside the stair landing window with lipstick pink geraniums. We were out of town that weekend and returned to find the plants frozen to death. So be diligent about watching the forecast. You can set many things out early if you are prepared to cover them if frost threatens. The Gardeners’ Guide for Charleston and the Lowcountry suggests that February is the month for ‘major’ pruning, but I prefer to wait until March.

Most of the perennials need to be left alone, as cutting back will only stimulate growth hormone and they will struggle to put out more leaves, especially since our winters are sprinkled with days approaching temperatures in the low 70s. Another freeze could completely destroy what’s left. Rain can fill the stems of plants cut back too early and travel down to rot the crowns. It will be interesting to see if any of the begonias come back. I have several large pots of angel wing begonias that have wintered over many times. My basic plan, though, is to assess the entire garden, clean it as much as possible, mulch what’s valuable, and start amending the soil with compost and manure before planting. I visited Hyam’s garden center recently. It was neat as a pin and had a colorful display of cold-hardy annuals. There were bright pansies, delicate violas, sulphur snapdragons, orange wallflowers, lavender nemesia and multi-colored primroses among hardy groundcovers such as ajuga (bugle weed). Cyclamen displayed its hot-pink blooms alongside maroon hellebores and dwarf heather covered in reddish purple berries. Hanging baskets of trailing snapdragons and coordinated various arrangements hung above topiaries near the large display of camellias and sasanquas. I dared not venture into the tropical greenhouse full of temptations, but almost did when I saw someone leaving it with a huge orange orchid in hand. Our house is not well-situated for growing houseplants and alas has windowsills too narrow for pots. The south, southwest exposure has fried many a porch plant in the summer.

I also stopped by Lowe’s to see what winter plants were available. There was not nearly the variety and choice of a local nursery, but there were large containers of kale, a limited palette of pansies, and the ubiquitous snapdragons. It was also neat and tidy and the pine straw container truck was doing a brisk business.

Now is a good time to go through your storage area and clean and organize your garden tools. I have just heard the advice to use vegetable oil on tools, not motor or other oil. Filling a bucket with sand and some vegetable oil will keep tools placed there from rusting. I use a diamond file for sharpening, but my husband also sets up a sharpening station with a vice and an electric grinder for the large loppers and shovel edges. I like to go through gloves and sprayers, too, throwing out the useless ones and making a list of what might be needed.

Seeds are one of my very favorite things about gardening. I love seeds. I have collected larkspur, cherry tomato, marigold, pepper, tithonia (Mexican sunflower), poppy, and zinnia seeds each year to scatter or plant when the time is right. I will sow lettuce and spinach from January through April and will also start collards and arugula, two of my most reliable crops, in pots. The lettuce and spinach work well as border plants until it gets hot and then it’s back to the nursery for summer annuals. My attempts to grow slicing tomatoes, cucumbers and squash have failed year in and year out, but it’s too much fun to stop trying. I have a productive blueberry bush in a pot and have successfully grown strawberries in hanging baskets.

So, it’s time to slowly clean and clean the garden and not worry too much about the damage. For those of you who have wisteria, you can prune it now, as much as you like. It has been hanging around our garden, strangling plants, for more than 40 years now and we will never be rid of it. Find a place for a compost heap (I do not put seedy weeds in it) and you will reap the benefits this year. It does not have to be fancy. I just pile the material and leaves in a corner and turn it occasionally with a pitchfork. Don’t be discouraged; your garden will recover, and, in the meantime, you can start all sorts of plants indoors, especially if you are lucky enough to have deep windowsills.

Louisa Huger Pringle Cameron is a native Charlestonian married to Price Cameron, a retired plastic surgeon. She is the author of three books on the gardens of Charleston, enjoys duplicate bridge and is a proud grandmother of three.


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