By: Julie Conrey, Mobile County Master Gardener
“Clark, baby, I can picture it in my mind, and it’s breathtaking.”
--National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
A nice bit of bare fence in my side yard was begging for a little color. After pondering the space for two growing seasons, I decided that this blank canvas needed a vine. The perfect candidate would be a slow, steady grower that in just a few short weeks would produce loads of colorful blooms which would gently twist in the breeze and whisper “Come find me!” to all types of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.
I found and purchased a Happy Jack Purple Clematis to fill the spot. I took it home, dug a hole, poured water in the hole, plopped the plant in and carefully mulched it. I had done my research. Clematis vines are easy to grow, provided its feet are wet and its head is in the sun. I declared it the most perfect plant in the most perfect location and looked forward to many happy years together.
Seems Mother Nature had other plans. The vine looked just okay for maybe a month, then it dropped its few small purple blooms onto soggy pine straw. To add insult to injury, its green leaves turned a mottled brown and dropped like flies, too. Its brown carcass remains where I planted it, awaiting a Lazarus-type resurrection that this Master Gardener is incapable of divining.
Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I do not easily surrender when I have my heart set on something. So, just how far do gardeners need to go to save a plant, and at what point do we intervene when Mother Nature throws the stink eye at our landscape?
Let’s start at the beginning, prior to even planting the vine. Although I had placed organic material and mixed new garden soil into the existing flower bed, I did not take a soil sample of the area and send it for testing. That was poor planning on my part, and I should know better. A soil sample would have told me whether the soil in that bed is acidic or alkaline, and whether it needed fertilizer or other amendments to help the clematis vine thrive. A soil test is $7, and it is money well spent if you’re looking to add or replace landscape plants. Check out how to conduct a soil test and where to send it at https://soilkit.com/auburn-soil-test-kit/
Clematis vines need full sun, about six hours daily, to grow well. They can also grow in partial shade, three to six hours of sun per day, but need shelter from the blistering afternoon sun we receive here along the Gulf Coast. Don’t make the mistake of falling in love with a poorly thought-out vision or lovely picture in a magazine. Checking the sunlight, and conversely, the shade requirements of plants prior to purchase will save you time, effort, and money.
Once you determine where you’d like to place a plant, track the amount of sunlight and shade it will receive in your yard. Observe the area in the morning, and mid-afternoon until dusk to determine if the area is suitable for what you’d like to grow. Be willing to change your plans if the amount of sunlight and shade calls for other options. The bed in which my vine was located bakes in the sun all day every day, and that exposure may have weakened it.
Ideally, new plantings should be monitored once a day to ensure they’re doing well. Mobile is in Zone 8b and is one of the rainiest cities in the nation. Add all the moisture we receive to the heat and humidity that drapes the Gulf Coast during most of the growing season, and things can quickly go downhill in our gardens. Make sure you get out and about at least once a day to check on your landscape’s health and viability.
Have a question about a plant, or need some advice about your lawn? Are your house plants looking a little puny? Don’t forget the Alabama Master Gardener Hotline is available year-round to answer your home garden questions. Reach out to us at 1-877-252-4769.
It’s truly humbling when Mother Nature upends a picture-perfect landscape design, especially when it’s your own. On the other hand, it’s truly empowering to learn from one’s mistakes, reevaluate overinflated expectations, reinvigorate tired soil, and plant anew. There is a plant out there that will sparkle along my fence line, and I’ll find it. Just never, ever give up!