Gardening advice for the novice Southerner

Gardening advice for the novice Southerner

by Ellen Goff

Newcomers to the Southeastern region, particularly gardeners, are unfamiliar with the climate's intense humidity, dynamic local soils and exotic pests. To help explain these regional peculiarities and how to cope with them, I've drawn on my 12 years of Southern living as well as highly rated professionals from Angie's List.

The climate

Known for mild winters, the South enjoys very long spring and fall seasons. This provides the luxury of growing gardenias, magnolias, camellias and citrus fruit. However, the summer that seems to last forever delivers high temperatures, frequent dry spells and stifling humidity.

"People who didn't grow up around here are surprised by how oppressive the heat is," says Billy Aaron, owner of highly rated Aaron's Lawn Solutions in Montgomery, Ala. "The spring and fall are great, but there are maybe 100 days in between when there are better places to be."

Outdoor plant diseases can spread quickly under these stressful conditions if not treated promptly. Good air circulation around trees and shrubs can help curb fungal problems. Avoid crowding and trim up bottom branches so there's plenty of space for air between the lowest branches and the soil level.

The soil

This region has it all - sandy soil along the coastal plain; hard, red clay in the piedmont, and clay and rocks in the mountains. Of the three, red clay is the most confounding to try to work with.

New Southerners don't understand the soil issues, says Christy Webster of highly rated Carolina Foundation Solutions in Asheville, N.C. "It's the combination of red clay and our weather - downpours and droughts cause the clay to expand and contract," she says.

In the garden, the best way to treat red clay is to add compost, rotted leaves and other organic materials to break up the naturally compacted soil. Do not use sand to loosen clay soil - it doesn't help and causes drainage problems.

The uninvited

A warm, pleasant climate often invites often invites alien species, such as kudzu vine, to run wild. A vigorous thug that can grow a foot per day, it kills other plants and trees by smothering them under a heavy cover of leaves. With roots that can reach 6 feet deep, kudzu is extremely hard to eradicate. Red imported fire ants are another common problem. They're a biting nuisance to residents and a threat to local ecosystems where they kill off native ant populations.

"Newcomers can't get over how prolific fire ants can be," says Aaron. Mounds can appear almost overnight. If you step on or near a mound, you will be bitten in seconds by dozens of ants. Aaron says he uses a treatment in yards that remains effective for almost a year. "The active ingredient is one that's used to treat fleas," he says.

You can also use water to control fire ants. On a cool, sunny morning or after a rain, carefully pour three gallons of boiling water over the ant mound. Repeat as needed.

But whatever issues you encounter, it's important to plow ahead and keep your long-term gardening goals in mind. Welcome to the South.

Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.

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