My view is that our gardens, especially inside the Beltway, are now essentially well in the South, in the floral equivalent of Richmond or even Raleigh, N.C.
What must that mean for Raleigh? North Carolina State University’s J.C. Raulston Arboretum is named for a plant scientist who once traveled to Korea to collect plants to breed hardier camellias. Today, the arboretum doesn’t hibernate much, with sweetbox currently perfuming the air. The horticulturists are growing Chinese podocarpus, a tender evergreen great for hedging in dry conditions but previously considered marginal north of Spanish moss country. The arboretum also has hybrid grapefruit trees that are 12 feet tall along with amaryllis that grows outdoors unmolested. No one bothers to lift and store canna or dahlia tubers.
Mark Weathington, the arboretum’s assistant director, said that in five years, “I haven’t really seen any cold winters.”
He suggests people enjoy a precocious flower now because “there are a lot of other blooms in the spring.”
But there are practical problems associated with mild winters that lull people into thinking that it is spring. For all the mildness, it’s a safe bet that a good freeze or two stands between us and early April.
Weathington makes the cogent point that gardening nuts who like to push boundaries to try neat plants know the risks of loss. The unsuspecting homeowner has different expectations. Weathington rails against the practice of mass merchandisers selling material that is pretty much doomed if grown outdoors in the long term. The list includes certain palms, oleander and a plant called sea grape, a tropical shrub grown on the Gulf Coast.
Consumers plant it, kill it and then tell themselves, “ ‘I’m not a good gardener,’ and they give up,” he said. “That’s my biggest fear.”
The other problem with retailers appealing to spring fever is in selling tender annuals in late winter that no one should buy until April or May, things like sweet basil, pepper plants and, most of all, tomato transplants.
“I know nurseries that last year sold tomato plants to the same people three times,” he said. “It warmed up pretty early and then it got cold again.”
More vexing to me is the idea that plants that need chilling won’t get it. Most spring bulbs need that cold for the flower embryo to develop. At the Raulston Aboretum, Weathington has seen this phenomenon in the way that species tulips don’t hold their blooms aloft, as they should, but close to the ground. You can buy pre-cooled bulbs — this is how folks in the Deep South, for example, enjoy certain daffodils or crocuses — the difficulty is that 60-degree temperatures in the middle of winter will coax them into bloom.
If there comes a winter when Washington gardeners need pre-cooled bulbs, I think I’ll head north in search of Frost — Robert and Jack.
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Read past columns by Higgins.