By Mary Glazer
Garden cleanup season can only mean one thing: Winter is over, well, at least for the Gulf Coast states. I’ve been raking leaves (seems that there are more in spring than fall), weeding, applying fresh mulch to the flowerbeds, and cutting back the perennials that typical freezing temperatures or frost killed off.
When I first moved to Florida from Ohio, I didn’t understand how a plant could be root-hardy. For the most part, in my northern homeland when a plant died to the ground, it was dead. But in the warmer climate of the Gulf Coast states, it’s only a temporary condition of winter for many plants. Their roots put forth new growth when the temperatures warm up in spring. Cutting back the dead vegetation or woody stalks in anticipation of the return of my flowering plants is a gratifying chore.
Firebush (Hamelia patens), a native plant that attracts butterflies, is a root-hardy plant I like to grow. It’s shown dormant, after cutting back, and then the following spring. Other root-hardy plants in my garden include Firespike (Odontonema callistachyum), which attracts hummingbirds; Giant turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus); and cat whiskers (Orthosiphon stamineus).
The herbaceous new growth is fairly nondescript and easily mistaken for a weed. For this reason, and to avoid stepping on the young and the helpless, I rarely cut the woody stalks to the ground. I prefer to leave them visible for several reasons: first, to avoid tripping on them; second, to clue me in to pull only the weeds; third, to prevent me from planting something new in an area I mistook for a gap in the landscape. If you’re like me, out of sight, out of mind.
It’s pretty amazing every spring to watch this process. New neighbors, experiencing their first Southern winter, ran over to my house after the first freeze asking, “Why did our plants die?”
My response, “Don’t worry, you’ve been buying zone-appropriate plants. The odds are very good that they’ll be back.”
The flush of new growth emerging from the ground in spring always is a sweet gift from Mother Nature.