Blooms and beauty year-round: Winter gardening on the Gulf Coast

Camellia Japonica, ‘Purple Dawn’

By Dr. Bill Barrick, Executive Director

Camellia Japonica ‘White Empress’

Camellia Japonica ‘Fashionata’

One of the great joys of living on the Gulf Coast is being able to garden during winter months. The location of Bellingrath makes it particularly desirable because the microclimate along the Fowl River tends to make this garden several degrees warmer than in the city limits of Mobile.

In a public garden such as Bellingrath, the real challenge is to provide floral color 365 days of the year for our visitors. If we were further north, that challenge could only be accomplished by having heated conservatories to display flowering plants. But in Mobile, with our relatively mild winter climate, we can grow and display any number of plants to fill our winter gardens with color.

Delphinium elatum, ‘Pacific Giant’

The true hallmark of Mobile gardens are camellias, and certainly these woody evergreen plants form the bones of the garden, but there are a whole host of annual flowering plants and bulbs that are adapted to our winters.

In recent years, we have been experimenting with any number of cold-hardy annuals that have proven to be hardy even when the temperatures drop into the mid-20s. Our Delphiniums have been especially impressive. Chuck Owens, Director of Horticulture, and his staff plant Delphinium plugs in our greenhouses in October and have blooming plants by December.

In northern environments, Delphiniums are perennials, but here at Bellingrath they are only used as cool-weather annuals. During the severe freezes in January, this plant continues to bloom, and unlike many other annuals, never needs frost protection. We have had great success with the taller Delphinium ‘Pacific Giant’ and the ‘Magic Fountain,’ both Delphinium elatum. Colors range from deep and light blue to purple, pink and white.

Ornamental cabbage: Brassica oleracea, ‘Peacock white’

Dusty Miller

While many folks have an aversion to flowering kale and cabbages, Barbara Smith, Design Coordinator, has creatively used these plants to create artful patterns in combination with Parsley, Petroselinum crispum ‘Krausa,’ and Dusty Miller, Jacobaea maritima.

The varieties which have proven to be most successful in the past few years are ‘Peacock’ and a taller growing variety with deep reddish purple foliage called ‘Redbor.’ ‘Redbor’ is generally available in the vegetable section of many seed catalogs. Its greatest attributes are its fantastic color, height – almost two feet – and delayed flowering in early May.

In recent years we have experimented with combinations of Tuscan and Russian kales, Mustard and Swiss Chard to add color to the winter beds.

Dianthus

An old-fashioned flower, Chinese Dianthus, Dianthus chinensis ‘Ideal,’ has been a proven winner. Flower colors in this variety range from cherry to fuschia. These wonderful plants have not needed any protection during the hard freezes.

In the last few winters, we’ve also found success with Dianthus interspecific ‘Bouquet,’ and ‘Amazon,’ real showstoppers. Other plants we have good luck with include a trailing Diascia, Diascia x hybrida, and Nemesia, a flowering, trailing annual. Both come in a range of colors.

Kalanchoe Calandiva

Some of our annuals have needed frost protection. We use a layer of pine straw to cover our Cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum ‘Laser’; and our English Daisies, Bellis perennis ‘Bellisima.’ Other bedding and container plants, such as begonias or Kalanchoe Kalanchoe Calandiva, are not cold-hardy and are moved indoors when cold temperatures threaten.

So, even in the bleak midwinter, gardens in the Deep South are indeed colorful and are enjoyed for their subtlety. A trip to Bellingrath in the winter months can be a surprise for our snowbird visitors and natives alike.

Planning a visit this winter? Purchase a Gardens-and-Home combination ticket at a reduced rate in January and February with our Snowbird Special. Click here for details. And don’t miss our  Winter Wednesdays programs! Click here for details.