Easy tips to help you start your garden in South Alabama

Local gardener. Photo via Liv George for The Bama Buzz

After the Spring Equinox on March 20 and Easter Sunday this past weekend, it’s pretty much official that spring has sprung! As shelves at your local shops fill up with florals and foliage, we sat down with Bill Finch, former Executive Director of Mobile Botanical Gardens and current Executive Director of Paint Rock Forest Research Center to answer some of our questions about gardening in Alabama.

Understanding the weather

Herb Garden At Mobile Botanical Gardens
Herb garden at Mobile Botanical Gardens. Photo by Liv George for The Bama Buzz.

When gardening in South Alabama, Finch says the most important thing to understand is the coastal climate—which actually has six distinct seasons, rather than the four we’re taught in school.

“The problem is, we all still think–and garden–like we live in England. It’s not more complicated, it’s just a different climate.

Bill Finch, Executive Director of Paint Rock Forest Research Center

So what are these six seasons? The rainfall in coastal areas of Alabama causes winter and summer to split into distinct wet and dry phases. Finch gave us his full seasonal breakdown:

  • Early Spring: around February 15 – around April 15
    • Lots of rainfall, rapid greening, soil begins to warm up
  • Spring: around April 15 – around June 15
    • Dry season, hot days, cool nights.
  • Gulf Summer: around June 15 – August 15
    • Raining almost daily, high humidity keeps temperatures the same at night
  • Hurricane Summer: around August 15 – October 15
    • High winds, unpredictable weather
  • Gulf Fall: around October 15 – December 15
    • Cool and dry, low humidity during this time
  • Wet Winter: around December 15 – around February 15
    • Very cold, very humid

See? Though the six-season-model of Southern weather seems daunting at first, it makes a lot of sense to anyone who’s lived in this area. Understanding what the weather is going to throw at you helps to anticipate your plants’ needs.

For example, in about ten days, it is going to dry up a bit and start warming up, so remember to water your plants more than you might’ve in the first half of April.

Mobile Botanical Gardens
Mobile Botanical Gardens. Photo by Liv George for The Bama Buzz.

So I understand the weather, can I buy plants now?

Almost! The next step, actually, is deciding if you want a patio garden or an in-ground garden. There’s some pros and cons of each, so we laid them out for you!

  • Patio Garden – Pros
    • Great for rentals because they aren’t permanent
    • Can move pots to get better lighting if necessary
    • Easier to start off with
  • Patio Garden – Cons
    • Hard to water all the way through the plant
    • Needs fertilizer because there is no access to soil micro biome
    • Needs pots with tons of drainage holes and local-made soil
  • In-Ground Garden – Pros
    • Nutrients come from the soil – no fertilizer necessary
    • Bit more self-sufficient
    • Easier to water
  • In-Ground Garden – Cons
    • Weeds
    • Must be relatively established – you can’t pick it up and take it with you anywhere
    • Possibility of more pests because they have access through the soil

There is no wrong choice for a garden. Just make sure that whatever planting method you choose informs how you take care of your plants.

Herb Gardens At The Mobile Botanical Gardens
Herb gardens at the Mobile Botanical Gardens. Photo by Liv George for The Bama Buzz.

Now can I go buy some plants?

Absolutely. For this particular season, we asked Finch to give us some hard-to-kill plants to start your garden. Here’s what he recommended:

  • Veggies
    • Okra – very heat-tolerant, grows easily in Lower Alabama
    • Basil – specifically the “Obsession” type
    • Eggplants – heat tolerant, can survive being forgotten
    • Southern Peas – black-eyed peas
  • Flowers
    • Mexican Sunflower Tithonia – gorgeous, relatively unknown (per Finch) flower
    • Zinnias – awesome flower to plant for pollinators
    • Coleus – great for a floral appearance without the fragility of flowers with its colorful leaves
  • Herbs
    • Ginger – hundreds of varieties, some for flowers, others for foliage, all useful
    • Tumeric – fantastic for you, grows great this time of year
    • Lemongrass – tons of medicinal properties, relatively hard to kill

This is just a short list to get your spring garden started. Finch recommends heading to a local nursery if you need some garden tips. Large chain hardware stores often are not region-specific and sell the same merchandise in Alabama that they do in Maryland. So, there may be variety in plants, but not all will survive in our climate. A local nursery will have experienced staff who know the climate and can help you make the best decision possible.

Mobile Botanical Center At The Botanical Gardens
Mobile Botanical Center at the Botanical Gardens. Photo by Liv George for The Bama Buzz.

Some final tips before you go

Don’t get discouraged with your first dead plant. Plants die, it’s a part of the gardening process. The trick is figuring out why and avoiding your mistakes with future plants.

“You won’t be a good gardener until you kill hundreds of plants”

Bill Finch, Executive Director of Paint Rock Forest Research Center

The number one killer of plants, per Finch, is improper watering. Especially if those plants are in pots. Even plants that dry out and perish can be the victim of poor watering technique. Proper watering, Finch says, depends on allowing the water to sink all the way through the plant. If it doesn’t, the roots on top will rot, killing the plant.

Potted Plants At Mobile Botanical Gardens
Potted plants at Mobile Botanical Gardens. Photo by Liv George for The Bama Buzz.

There’s a few ways to up your watering game. Finch’s suggestion is bottom-watering, in which you place your plant (with its well-draining pot) into a saucer of water and you let the plant soak up the water from the bottom. Alternatively, you can water your plants three times per watering. Water once and come back in about 5 minutes after the water has soaked through the plant. Finch says he’s never had an issue with a plant he waters three times like this.

If you still have plant questions, tune in to 106.5 FM Talk on Sundays from 9-11 am. Bill Finch runs a radio segment in which he answers all of your plant questions live on air. Please read this to learn more about watering.

Have you started your garden yet? Snap a pic and show us @TheBamaBuzz!

Liv George
Liv George

A Georgia native soaking up the sun on the Gulf Coast. Lover of Mardi Gras, beach days, and historical sites.

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