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Southeast Gardening: Beating Fickle Weather

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Whether it’s too hot, too cold, abnormally dry or soggy beyond reason, fickle weather needs to be faced head-on. Here are some tips for Southeast gardeners.

black spot on foliage

By Glenn DiNella

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”

Practically everyone thinks it applies specifically to his or her area. The reality is, weather can turn wicked in no time, no matter where you live.

Here in the Southeast we definitely get some extreme conditions: temperatures in the triple digits in summer; occasional single digits in winter; snow and ice storms that wreak havoc on our trees and other plants; torrential summer downpours; tornadoes; hurricanes. It’s a weather reporter’s center stage in these parts. It’s also a challenge for gardeners. You can’t prepare for every weather condition, but you can do a few things to hedge your bets in the landscape.

boy next to fallen oak tree

Planting deciduous shade trees near your home is great. They provide shade in summer to ease the air-conditioning bill. They lose their leaves in fall to let the winter sun in and help warm your home. But think twice about planting an oak or other large shade tree close to your home. Here’s one that came down in a storm. Luckily, it wasn’t near the house.

staked tree near house

Plant large trees at least 15 feet from structures. And consider planting smaller deciduous trees such as redbuds, crape myrtles, dogwoods, or this chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) closer to the house. Even small trees might benefit from staking to help support them during windstorms.

mushrooms on lawn

Although typically we run into periods of summer drought in the Southeast, last year and so far this year we’ve had abundant rainfall. But that can lead to other problems such as fungus in the form of mushrooms in the lawn (shown here).

gravel washout after rain

Too much rain also can show up in mildew on crape myrtles, or blackspot on roses and crape myrtles (shown at the top of the story). Be sure to locate those and other sun-loving plants in sunny spots, but keep fungicides available if your lawn or plants develop a problem.

Heavy downpours can cause washouts. Although you can’t engineer for the worst-case scenario, consider using heavier egg rock, or even flat stones or concrete pavers in drainage areas. (Some concrete pavers are made to resemble stone.) The pea gravel used in this dry creek bed didn’t stand a chance during one of our 4-inch-per-hour rainstorms.

damaged foliage on oleander

And then there is extreme cold, as we experienced in January 2014. The temperature bottomed to 7°F degrees in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The arctic blast damaged the foliage on some of my windmill palms, a bay tree, and an oleander (shown here), but most plants survived.

Although it would be easy simply to plant things we know tolerate the extreme cold, I encourage gardeners to expand their palettes and try at least a few plants that push the limits. Another old adage I share with people who are afraid to try plants outside their comfort zone is: “A ship is safe in the harbor. But that is not what ships are built for.”