Thursday, January 21, 2010

Out in the Cold - Part Two

This is the second half of Out in the Cold, which contains more tips and factoids from our Executive Director, Fred Spicer, about wintertime gardening in Alabama. Read up, comment, and pass it along to fellow gardeners or "Curious Georges," if you will. If you have any questions not answered in parts one or two, give us a call at 205.414.3900 and we'll find someone who can answer your query!

Considering our climate, a major distinction to make initially is whether a plant is intended (or expected) to live out-of-doors through a Birmingham winter. For example, if you moved your fig (Ficus benjamina) outside for the summer – making a house plant a patio plant – and you haven’t brought it inside yet, it’s way too late. It’s dead. It’s not realistic to expect it to have lived. (The same could be said about the same plant having been planted in the ground; it’s not even close to being hardy.)

Normally winter-hardy plants, Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), for instance, grown outside in containers through the winter, have an excellent chance of living through a typical winter here. Moist, well-drained soil in the container is important. Given that, if the container can withstand the expansion of frozen soil without cracking, and if the plant is well-watered, hardy plants will have their best chance of survival. The hardier the plant, the longer it can withstand frozen soil and plunging temperatures. We don’t expect any damage to container plants at The Gardens from this recent weather. We’re watering as we can.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Out in the Cold - Part One

very time the seasons change, we get a flood of gardening questions and requests for best practices. These questions are all over the proverbial horticultural map, ranging from topics like transplanting shrubs to growing native plants to tips on not killing flowers. Last week's (very) cold spell got us to thinking, so we asked our executive director for some pointers. In true Fred fashion, his counsel is highly educational and extraordinarily thorough. What follows is Out in the Cold - Part One, the first half of Fred's answers to pretty much any wintertime gardening-related question an Alabama gardener might have.

by Fred Spicer, Executive Director, Birmingham Botanical Gardens

It is specifically during frigid times like these that I am asked (mostly by non-gardeners) what Birmingham Botanical Gardens (BBG) is doing to protect our plants from the cold weather. My response, typically accompanied by a blank stare, is usually along the lines of, “What do you think we should be doing?”  I’m not sure if people think we erect a temporary, heated dome over our 67 acres, or set up phalanxes of small heaters, or enshroud our living collections in big blankets – I really don’t know what they’re thinking. We’re not running a citrus plantation, after all.  It seems to me that they’re hoping I will enlighten them with horticultural secrets carefully guarded by the gardening cognoscenti. Mostly, I think I disappoint them.

At this point, with winter firmly upon us, there’s really not much we can do. To be sure, we’re monitoring temperatures in our conservatory and greenhouses on an hourly basis (24/7), to make sure the heaters are working, but outside? Aside from some watering of new plantings and annuals (more on that later), not much at all. From our evaluative perspective, we are curious as to what our plants will do in the face of all weather, whether heat, drought or prolonged cold: what will they tell us? Our intention – following a collections mission of acquisition to determine suitable plants for our area – is to see what happens. But home gardeners don’t necessarily have the same mission, so I’ll discuss the factors that determine whether plants live, die, or partially die, in the winter, and a few things we’ve already done to maximize our potential success.