The morning after Hurricane Gustav, my husband hauled out the lawn mower and churned the fallen oak debris around our house into compost. It would have seemed comical to an outsider, or perhaps poignant — the thrum of the suburban machine against the vacancy of the city, a few downed cable lines swaying, the occasional Humvee speeding past. It was, in fact, laugh-out-loud absurd but also logical and right. The thinking goes something like: Well, that one didn’t turn and kill us! Let’s make plans.
My plan is to have a fabulous spring flower garden. Spectacular. Envy-inspiring. Cut-able. And I’ve just learned I can grow flowers I despaired of growing this far south by planting them now so they’ll mature in the cooler season. My guides on this journey will be Mrs. Walter Oser and Mrs. Charles B. Stewart, the authors of Gardening in New Orleans. Oser and Stewart, whose given names you’ll only learn if you dig around (they are Helen and Mary, respectively), published their no-nonsense guide in 1952. I found my paperback edition (1987) at a used bookstore. The cover is worn, but the tone inside is crisp and utterly assured.
For instance: It is too late to start calendula and pansies from seed for spring. You can still plant sweet peas, but you need to plant them now, in October. These will not transplant: Direct-sow them in alkaline soil. Prepare soil two weeks before planting by spreading composted manure or well-rotted leaf mold over the surface and spading it in to a depth of 10 inches and leaving it for a week. Then break up the clumps you spaded in, and work it through more thoroughly. Rake it smooth, and leave that for a week, then soak the whole bed with a hose if the rain hasn’t soaked it already, and then leave it two days, and then rake again.
See? Authoritative. So when Oser and Stewart tell me that I’ll be able to grow larkspur, hollyhock, gaillardia, poppies, stocks, snapdragons, sweet william and baby’s breath in the months between hurricane seasons, I believe them. But only if I start now. Right now. Especially if I want to start my own seeds, which I do.
Sweet peas first. There’s an area outside my latticework fence that faces south and west, and that’s the spot for them. In summer this area is too hot for anything but sunflowers, but the winter sun will be perfect for coaxing the young peas forth. I found a great product called Nearly Invisible Netting that I’ll staple to the wood to give them the kind of climbing structure they like — small enough to wrap their tendrils around, with enough space between horizontals to force them to stretch up and up. The compost that’s been cooking in the backyard since midsummer will get spaded in (instructions above) and with it a hefty dose of organic 3-3-3 NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) fertilizer. Sweet peas are heavy feeders, so I’ll lay down two good handfuls per running foot in my 20-inch-wide bed. My
soil tends to be alkaline, but you might add lime or wood ashes as well if your soil tests below 7 on one of those little pH gauges.
Hollyhocks are cause for more trepidation. I’ve tried the old-fashioned hollyhocks that only bloom in their second season and seen them evaporate under the summer heat without ever flowering. Good varieties do exist for New Orleans; a few years back, Dan Gill endorsed a shorter 18-inch variety called Queenie Purple for this area, saying that it bloomed prolifically the first year. I’ll definitely give that a try. I’m also going to take a chance on Indian Spring, which grows to 8 feet, because I want a tall variety. Hollyhocks tolerate being moved, and their seeds are so tiny they can disappear out of doors. As a result, hollyhock seeds are one of the few I’ll probably start in flats and then move to a sheltered, sunny spot next to a south-facing wall.
To make room for the poppies, the snapdragons and the larkspur, I’m going to have to move a rangy scented geranium, a penta and a firecracker plant out of the way. That’s OK: As the weather cools down, it’s a great time to start moving plants. The thyme that thrives here in winter is also going to have to move, and that’s fine, too. Placement on the cooler northern side of the house will prevent it from shriveling in summer as it did this year. Of course, Oser and Stewart give you nice guidance on moving plants, too.
To be truly spectacular, each group of flowering plants should be massed together to create impact. Once my little winter annuals have true leaves, I’ll tuck a green mulch — grass clippings without the hurricane leaves — around their feet. That will encourage good bacteria and also will help them fix nitrogen by keeping the soil alkaline.
On a certain day between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras, I’ll find myself rich with flowers and the envy of my friends who live in cooler, safer climates.
Sounds like a plan.
The following are recommended by the LSU AgCenter for our area:
Annual baby’s breath
Bachelor’s buttons (cornflower)
Ornamental cabbage and kale
Shirley and California poppies