Weather likes to play games – whether we like it or not. One year may bring an abundance of rain; the next year, severe drought. Home gardeners (and their plants) try their best to adapt to unexpected weather extremes, but let’s face it: Some growing seasons are better than others. Our best line of defense is to be ready for whatever Mother Nature may throw our way – long before she starts her warm-up pitches.

Frost

Freak frosts still linger in early spring. Remember, “drought tolerant” doesn’t mean “frost resistant!”

Photo Credit: Sarah Landicho

Petunias

Temperatures in the 50s may be fine for these heat-loving petunias – but only in the morning. The plants will suffer in midday temps that low.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Pansies

Fall-planted pansies have been providing color through winter, but the show’s not over! Keep them a little longer for a blanket of sunshine over those cool days of early spring.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

“Drought tolerant” is a common phrase spoken among many home gardeners – especially those living in typically dry regions or in any areas that have ever been hit by a severe drought. But as a new year of spring fever carries us into the garden center, let’s not forget to employ a little common sense.

After a terrible drought had hit the Southeast during the 2007 growing season, I saw swift sales of portulaca in the garden center in late March. I had to wonder if “drought tolerant” had caught on too fast in the consumer mind. It seemed that another phrase, often associated with early plantings, had been overlooked: What about “frost resistant?”

In the warm greenhouse, all kinds of flowers bloom and foliage thrives. Growers will always work to meet demand, and year after year there’s always a demand for early blooms. After a year of drought, the following growing season can create a somewhat unique situation: With the focus on drought-tolerant plants, folks are ready (and eager) to comply and get their gardens started with water-wise plantings. What’s more, spring rains can be quite encouraging, loosening the parched soil and returning all shades of green to our landscapes. It’s hard to fight the urge to get out there and start planting!

Unfortunately, there’s a little hitch: Drought-tolerant plants are largely heat-loving plants, meaning they perform best when the soil and air is warm – day and night. Even after the magical frost-free date, the night air temperatures will still sometimes dip drastically compared with the pleasant daytime highs.

For the most part, commercial growers don’t even have those heat lovers ready for sale until mid-May or later. They’ve got your interest in mind, since they can create a favorable environment in the greenhouse and offer any plant, more or less, at any time. And growers and retailers know that the success you experience in the garden will influence your interest in gardening, so they want to make sure your plant purchase results in a positive experience. The fact is, until temperatures remain consistently warm, early plantings will just sit in the ground and display very little new growth. But once the season is right, the home gardener will be rewarded with lush growth and a burst of blooms.

Another eager-beaver gardening quirk is what I like to call “The Easter Effect.” For some mysterious reason, many folks here in the Southeast believe that Easter marks the beginning of the gardening season. (I think Mother’s Day or Memorial Day are the magic “planting marks” further North.) Some years, Easter may in fact coincide well with gardening activities. But remember, this holiday moves every year. Easter is the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. So it can be as early as March 22 or as late as April 25. While we can experience sunny skies and a mercury reading of 74 degrees F the week before Easter, two days after the holiday can still bring a temperature plummet to a bone-chilling, potentially plant-damaging, 29 degrees F.

Scheduling garden chores around a floating holiday is risky at best. Instead, learn when the frost-free date in your area is. For me, it’s April 15. I admit, I may plant a few tomatoes before April 15. (There are bragging rights for the first ripe tomato, you know.) But I’ll be prepared to protect plants from an early spring frost. And if there’s a hard freeze…well, I’ll be prepared to buy replacements.

Water-wise gardening means more than making a blanket decision to choose drought-tolerant plants. It requires choosing the right plant for the right place and planting at the right time. If you use water to establish drought-tolerant plants and then they’re killed by a not too uncommon spring frost, you’ve defeated your water wise effort, since you’ll have to use more water to repeat the establishment process with new plants. Being water wise is really important – but let’s be “garden wise” this season, too!