Winter in the Deep South knows not whether it’s coming or going. This morning it was going, giving way to Spring in a burst of 70-degree sunshine and accompanying southern breezes. Tonight it will be coming back, with lows in the upper 30s. The seasons overlap here. You can’t figure out what to wear when you’re off to work. The weather changes on a whim.
So it is that Deep South garden plants also don’t always seem to know the correct season. For instance, pecan season is supposed to end by late fall, yet this morning I found a basketful of good new nuts lying on the ground beneath my favorite tree.
Winter has shown its true nature already, spoiling my experiment in trying to keep summer tomato plants alive long enough to produce a second late crop. After about four nights in the low 30s, all the vines gave up the ghost, and I was left with maybe 20 small, mostly green fruits. To the relief of my wife (and probably the next-door neighbors) I finally relented, pulled up the withered vines and removed their cages.
I always inspect the roots of veggie plants upon pulling them up, looking for signs of nematodes. These microscopic plant-juice-sucking worms have been the bane of my gardening existence on this property – and they’re unfortunately a common southern pest that plagues a variety of fruit and vegetable plants – especially tomatoes. True to form, I found evidence of nematodes on the roots of the plants growing in the two northernmost of six raised beds in the front garden. However, I found little or no nematode damage (they cause noticeable bulging knots in the roots) in plants pulled up from the other beds.
Those other beds had been interplanted with Tagetes minuta, a.k.a. Mexican marigold, in actuality a plant more common in Peru and used there the way we might use mint or parsely. I planted Tagetes m. because it is said to be found offensive to nematodes. From the rudiments of the tomato roots I studies, it appears true that they help keep the nematode worms away.
At the southern end of the garden, I’ve left several hot pepper plants standing even though by their leaves you might conclude that they’ve been frozen out. Actually, at least some of them probably will survive the rest of the winter and produce more fiery fruit by late spring. Pepper stems become thick and woody by midsummer, and they can withstand both more hot and more cold weather than tomatoes. I’ll go over the plants to remove a few dozen more good chilies, and then probably trim back the green portion of the branches to the thicker “wood.” I can already see new green shoots near the bottom of a very large jalapeño plant.
In another bed, we’re tending new, 2-inch-high spinach plants, which were sown in two rows 4 feet apart and now need to be thinned. We’ll replant the thinnings in between the main rows. And this weekend, I’ll convert another of the former tomato beds to spinach. In part this is because we like spinach, and also because nematodes are said to be not exactly enamored of Popeye’s favorite food. Probably we also can chance planting carrots and lettuce now, as both can handle occasional dips toward the freezing mark.
Meanwhile, I’ve been waiting for my favorite fig tree to go dormant, because conventional wisdom says it’s better to propagate figs from dormant cuttings. Which brings up something else about Deep South gardening. Sometimes it pays to be unconventional and experiment. And sometimes you have no choice. My other two figs are now dormant, but this third one may not go dormant at all this year. It’s a semi-dwarf, dark-fruited variety that’s supposed to produce two crops annually but instead produces three. The ripe fruit is drier than, for instance, a turkey fig, extremely sweet and absolutely delicious.
Since the tree refuses to go to sleep over the winter-spring, it looks like I’ll be experimenting with green wood cuttings, because I want some clones of this excellent plant, and anyway, I need to trim up the tree a little in order to keep the top branches growing out instead of up, where only the birds can reach next spring’s fruit.
The temptation for me always is to set out the spring vegetable plants a little too early – but I’m learning to restrain myself and listen to the old-timers down at the feed store, who swear you can tell when the last frost is gone for good, by watching for the sight of the year’s first pecan leaf buds.