May 2021 in the Garden at WLTX

May is one of my favorite months in the garden. Temperatures are warm enough for quick growth, but cool enough to limit plant stress. (Also, the weather is bearable for yard work!) Typically May in Columbia, SC is quite hot, but the first half of May 2021 has been much cooler than average. The average afternoon high through May 15 was only 79F this year (the climatological average is about 82F), and morning temperatures were about 4 degrees cooler than the climatological average. The “Famously Hot” city will live up to its name for the last week of May, but here’s a look at how the garden is responding to spring so far.

A look back at the segment when it aired on WLTX. You can read the article as it appears on HERE

Bush & Pole Beans

I started these plants from seed in early April. Beans are a great garden project to start with kids because of the large size of the seeds and quick germination rates. The bush beans just started flowering (that’s about 6 weeks after the seeds were planted). I expect they would have bloomed even faster if the weather was warmer at the start of this month. Bush beans are shorter growing and shorter lived than pole beans which are vining and require a trellis. It’s interesting the pole beans are growing slower than the bush beans so far. I will start more bush bean seeds in mid summer when the current plants begin to wind down.


Last September I planted two Cardoon plant seedlings for the winter garden. These plants have gorgeous silver leaves that get bigger and better with age! Cardoon is an artichoke relative, but they’re grown for their edible foliage. However, edible is a relative thing. I learned it’s quite bitter. Cardoon plants stay pretty all winter as long as temperatures stay above 15F (which is the case for most of our winters). As the weather warms up, these plants will leap into flower mode producing artichoke-looking flower buds. Maybe next year I will try an artichoke plant, which are grown for their edible flower buds. Artichokes are tough to grow in the southeastern US because the buds often erupt into flowers before they’re ready to pick because of our extreme heat.


I was gifted a few watermelon seeds from a fellow meteorologist, Mark Holley. The mother plant grew a 170 lb fruit – talk about big shoes (or rather fruit) to fill! I planted the seeds one month ago in mid-April and they are really starting to pick up speed. Watermelon prefer hot temperatures and kind of crawl when spring is cool like it’s been this year. That’s why I believe watermelon seeds can be started as late as May or even June in the south, although it’s better to start early. Watermelon take about 3 months after sprouting to begin producing fruit, so plants started from seed in April should have their first ripe fruits in July in my experience.

Malabar Spinach.

I am very excited to try this new plant for the first time! I actually got these seedlings from a nursery by my parents house in New York in late April. I brought it back down to South Carolina with me on the plane. (Pro-tip, most airlines will allow you to carry small plants on the plane if it’s a domestic flight!). Malabar Spinach is a vine that loves hot weather and can be eaten just like your typical spinach leaf. Clearly it’s not related to the common spinach (Spinacia oleracea), which is short growing and loves cool and short days. Malabar spinach needs a big space. I actually had to purchase a trellis for it.


This is actually the first year I’m growing cucumbers in my adult life, but funny enough, it was one of the only things growing in Gandy’s Garden when I started at WLTX in 2019. The garden was left to the weeds after Jim Gandy retired so there was absolutely no supplemental watering or care going on. However in the middle of the grass was a surviving cucumber plant from last year (maybe even the year before). Pretty impressive if you’ve ever had the pleasure of spending a hot summer in the South Carolina Midlands. It’s clear cucumbers are pretty easy to grow! You just need plenty of space. This year I opened up part of the lawn to an in-ground garden and cucumbers were the first thing to come to mind for the spot. I started these cucumber seeds in late March and they started flowering about 6 weeks after sprouting. I will have them climb up a trellis as they grow.


I learned a lot about tomatoes in 2020 and feel confident in my selections for this upcoming summer. “Sweet Million” was the biggest producer last season, and I am excited to have them back in the 2021 garden. I started them from seedlings in Mid April. I’m also growing Midnight Snack, which is another cherry type of tomato. Park Whopper Improved and Rutgers Tomatoes are both larger fruiting varieties. The Rutgers tomato is a “determinate” variety which requires less support to grow and great in pots. Determinate tomatoes are generally a heavier producer early in the season, but it will not fruit continuously like indeterminate varieties. Indeterminate tomatoes grow and fruit continuously if the right weather requirements are met.


I never grew peppers from seed before until this year, and by the way, it was an accident! A few banana peppers are coming back from the fruit I left on the ground by last year’s plants. Amazingly, these volunteers are now almost as tall as the seedlings purchased from the store. I decided to throw a few pepper seeds in pots on my porch in my apartment from the fruit at the supermarket and those are also sprouting. The bell peppers, Carolina reaper, and “Fooled You” peppers were planted in mid April as seedlings. There’s a little something for every pepper lover this year because Carolina Reaper are one of the hottest peppers in the world and “Fooled You” has a Jalapeno taste but none of the heat.


The White Casper Eggplant I started from seeds inside my house in late February, are beginning to flower. I’m really happy with their progress over the past few months. The eggplant seedlings I purchased from a local nursery in April were originally taller than my seed started eggplants, but the seed started eggplants have surpassed them in size and vigor. They’re different varieties, so I am not saying seed starting eggplant is going to result in plants that are healthier than from the store, but they’re certainly holding their own! It takes about 3 months for eggplant to begin flowering after sprouting and another month for fruit to ripen so eggplant fruits should be ready in late June from the white eggplant.

Winter Plants

The cool weather so far this season has been very beneficial for plants left over from the winter garden. I planted Kale and Romaine Lettuce seedlings in March they’re still alive and producing healthy foliage. The cilantro and parsley I planted last September are well past their prime and are now setting seed. The snow peas have grown vigorously this spring and are producing new pods each day. I started the snow peas from seed in October and they sat in the garden until the weather started to warm up in February. I don’t think it made a huge difference to start these in the Fall because they grew just as well last year when I started the seeds in the ground in early February.

There is so much more I could talk about, but I will save some of the conversation for another blog post! In the meantime, be sure to check out my social media for more updates and of course WLTX every weekday morning!

Growing Fruit Trees at WLTX

Fruit trees are an investment. Plant them once, and enjoy them year after year. They don’t require annual planting like tomatoes and eggplant, but that doesn’t make these trees full proof. Actually, some of the fruit trees I’m trying in Gandy’s Garden at WLTX are proving to be more trouble than they might be worth! In Late 2019/Early 2020, I selected fruits to test their limits in South Carolina’s climate, but I learned the weather isn’t the only hurdle that could keep fruit from reaching the table. Here’s a look at what I’m growing and a few problems I’ve encountered so far.

Watch my story that aired on WLTX about our fruit trees.


Loquats are beautiful trees planted all across the South Carolina Midlands (and mild climates around the world). They’re a great choice in landscapes because of their evergreen foliage, tidy appearance, and low maintenance requirements. Those who have grown these trees long enough may have noticed they also produce bright yellow fruit in the spring. The fruit is usually ripe by mid spring, but they don’t fruit every year in South Carolina because of our weather. Loquats bloom in early winter which makes the fruit vulnerable to hard winter freeze. This year the lowest temperature was 20 degrees in Columbia, SC, which is relatively mild and many loquats are loaded with fruit.

Loquat fruit has a similar taste to apricot and are ready to pick when the skin is soft, yellow and can pull off the tree with a light tug. The tree is native to eastern Asia. Loquat fruit are popular in Chinese and Japanese desserts, but are rarely seen at grocery stores in the United States because of their short shelf life.


There are several species of Kiwi vines, but most of them are not self pollinating. That means they need a male and female plant in order to produce fruit. I purchased this kiwi plant from a local nursery in late winter 2020 as two plants (one male, one female) in one pot. This is often how gardeners can find these plants for sale, and in theory, it ensures they’ll one day fruit.

This plant is very easy to grow and appears to sail through mild winters. Unfortunately, the kiwi plants here at WLTX are not fruiting. It’s possible one of two vines we purchased died and now there isn’t proper pollination for fruit. Our vines are producing plenty of flowers, but even when it appears that fruit is on the way, the flowers brown and drop off with no notice. It’s a clear sign of lack of pollination. Planting a lot of kiwi vines would ensure more pollination success, but be prepared to dedicate plenty of space and wait a few years before reaping the benefits.



Pomegranate are another very easy tree to grow in the South Carolina Midlands, but a challenging one to fruit. The trees are pretty through the growing season, and they’re very heat and drought tolerant. Pomegranate trees lose their leaves in the winter and produce red flowers in spring after they leaf out for the season. There are several varieties of pomegranate, and some of these produce flowers without fruit. For those looking for an incredible conversation plant, there’s a variety of pomegranate tree that produces white flowers and white fruit.

The pomegranate in our garden at WLTX is a fruiting variety, but it did not fruit its first spring and none of the flowers so far this spring have produced fruit either. We’ve spoken to several gardeners on our facebook page WLTX Gandy’s Gardeners about this, and they have shared a similar experience. Like the kiwi, this could be a pollination issue, but unlike kiwi, pomegranates are self pollinating which means only one tree is required for fruit to develop. I recently decided to try hand pollinating each flower to encourage fruit to form. To hand pollinate I pick off one flower and rub it onto all the other blooms (basically doing a bees work!). So far this method is not working. I’ll let you know anything changes!


There are many types of citrus trees available, and most are too tropical to grow outside in the South Carolina Midlands. Citrus trees typically fruit during the wintertime where they could be exposed to damaging freezes. Selecting an earlier fruiting variety that has enough cold tolerance to survive winter nights in the teens is critical for success outdoors in the South Carolina Midlands. 

I’m growing an Owari Satsuma Mandarin in our garden at WLTX. This variety fruits in October and survives temperatures in the upper teens without damage. It’s capable of recovering from temperatures in the low teens which makes it a good candidate for gardens in the South Carolina midlands. The tree I planted at WLTX has survived 20F temperatures multiple times without any protection. It comes out of winter completely untouched by the cold. During its first spring in the ground, my tree bloomed heavily and produced about a dozen fruit. This past spring the tree produced fewer blooms and it does not appear to have any fruit. The tree seems to be focusing more energy on producing foliage this year, which is common for citrus after a heavy fruiting season. I have confidence this tree will fruit again when it’s ready. 

RELATED: How to grow citrus outdoors in South Carolina

Citrus hystrix is a bit unusual because it’s grown for its foliage. Like bayleafs, Citrus hystrix has fragrant leaves that lend a unique citrus flavor to dishes. The trees also produce fruit, similar to limes, although the fruit from Citrus hystrix is used mainly as a zest since there isn’t a lot of pulp. Although this tree is considered tropical, I left this tree outside in a pot when temperatures dropped to 20F. A few leaves became spotted, but the tree remains healthy and even bloomed this spring. Citrus hystrix would not be the best choice in the ground in the South Carolina Midlands, but it certainly can handle some cold.


The first fruit tree anyone in South Carolina thinks of is (or probably should be) peaches. Peach cobbler is a southern staple and South Carolina produces more peaches than anywhere else in the southeast (even more than Georgia!). Peach trees require a certain number of chill hours (hours below 45F each winter) in order to flower. A peach tree will not flower if it doesn’t experience enough chill hours, and trees that receive too many chill hours will flower prematurely and be destroyed by a late frost or freeze. 

I purchased this tree in February 2020. During its first spring, the peach tree produced abundant flowers because it came straight from the nursery. There were plenty of peaches, but unfortunately there were too many peaches. The fruit ended up staying small. splitting, and eventually fell off the tree. I learned peach fruit need to be pruned off so the fruit gets enough nutrients to mature. Unfortunately, this past winter was too mild for the peach tree to produce abundant flowers, despite being a recommended variety for the South Carolina Midlands. The result was plenty of lush foliage, but few opportunities for fruit. Fortunately, the few branches that did flower produced fruit. I cut most of the fruits off so the tree can focus on making the most out of the few fruit I got. If successful, the fruit will be ready in June. If it’s not successful, you’ll be hearing about it!


One look at banana trees and most people’s minds go straight to the tropics. They’re often called banana “trees” because of their huge size, but these plants don’t produce woody stems which is why they’re considered the world’s largest herb. The stems are more cold tolerant than the leaves. Some species like Musa Basjoo and Ensete Maurelli have stems that can withstand temperatures below 20F, although their leaves are just as cold sensitive as their tropical relatives. The most cold tolerant banana species unfortunately don’t produce edible fruit. 

In Gandy’s Garden I’m trying several ornamental bananas and a tropical edible banana called “Blue Java”. This variety can withstand temperatures in the mid 20s before the main trunk begins to die back. Blue Java (also known as Ice Cream bananas) requires about 3 years of growth before flowering and fruiting. One tree can produce a bundle of bananas that number in the 100s. Unfortunately, after two successful winters, the “Blue Java” banana in Gandy’s Garden died to the ground. It was completely exposed during a 20F night because I was out of town. The banana plant is returning from the ground, but will take at least 2 more years before it can attempt to fruit.

October recap of the garden

Some fruit trees are more challenging to grow for new gardeners than the quintessential summertime crops, but they are worth an effort. Even when they fail to produce fruit, the trees themselves look great in a landscape and will usually get bigger and and better with each passing season.

Growing Windmill Palms in New York City

It’s no secret, I love palm trees! My passion for all things palmy started at a very young age. In the 7th grade I bought my first Trachycarpus fortunei (windmill palm) off eBay, and in the 8th grade, I did an entire project on growing palm trees in New York City. It gave me the confidence to plant two palm trees outside in New York when I was in high school. It was an experiment on climate change, and an exciting opportunity to make my yard look a little more like the tropical climates I love to forecast in. It turns out, the experiment has been a success because, 12 years later, those same palms are thriving. Are you looking to grow palm trees in a cold climate? Hopefully this post will help! I’ll share how I selected this mild microclimate in my yard, the kind of protection these plants received, and the temperatures they’ve survived.

Why Windmill Palms?

When people ask what palm they should try to grow in cold climates, I always recommend Trachycarpus fortunei (Windmill Palms). It grows new fronds quickly, has a beautiful trunk, takes a long time to get very tall, is spineless, and can handle extreme cold and hot weather too. Trachycarpus fortunei are cold tolerant to 10F briefly without major damage. There’s no other palm that can handle that kind of cold and also provide a dense canopy of beautiful palm fronds overhead. Needle palms and Sabal minor are more cold tolerant by a few degrees, but stay short and more shrubby. Keep in mind, with any palm, duration of cold and wetness is so important to consider. Many palms die from winter rot in northern and wet climates if temperatures get close to their minimal tolerance. However, there are some palms coming back from 0F temperatures in Dallas after the disastrous freeze in 2021 because the duration of winter cold is short and the sun is strong in the south.

Some gardeners push palms beyond the plants’ typical climate of comfort by wrapping them. I’ve use frost cloths and Christmas lights, but in more extreme climates some palm enthusiasts build big boxes with insulation and light bulbs. This is all to keep the palm trees a few degrees warmer on nights that would otherwise be too cold. Trachycarpus fortunei are a easy to protect because of their manageable size. These palms also do fantastic in pots and can easily be rolled into the house, a garage, or even a warm crawl space during the wintertime.

An Aside: Growing palm trees is a sign of Climate Change

Climate change is making it easier to grow palm trees in climates like New York City. It may not come as a surprise. A warmer world means warmer temperatures, but arctic air still exists and will occasionally move in and wipe out a garden that is growing north of where it should be. However, it appears that the arctic outbreaks in New York City are not as strong as the past. Since 2000, 9 winters have been warm enough to grow Windmill Palms in New York City unprotected because temperatures stayed above 10°F. This is a recent warming trend not seen any other time in the past 150 years of record keeping in the city.

Central Park has reported 39 winters with sub-zero temperatures °F since 1871. That’s an average of 1 in every 4 years. However In the past 30 years, it’s only happened in 2 winters (1994 and 2016).

Interestingly, studies show New York City may be getting snowier because climate change is increasing the strength of Nor’easters. Six of the 10 biggest daily snowfalls in New York City’s Central Park have occurred since the year 2000. Snow itself is not a limiting factor for growing cold tolerant palm trees, but snow could give some New Yorker’s the perception that winters aren’t getting warmer. As contradictory as it sounds, more snow is likely a symptom of a warmer climate in New York’s case.

My experience with Windmill Palms

My two Trachycarpus fortunei (Windmill palms) have a pretty modest growth rate. When I planted them 12 years ago, their trunks were less than half a foot tall, and now their trunks are approaching 4 feet. They’ve had a few rough winters which I will detail in a picture collage below, but generally grow about 7-10 fronds each season so the damaged winter fronds are usually just a memory by the time autumn rolls around.

May 2012 VS May 2021 (8 years apart)

In March 2009 I selected the best microclimate I could find in my parents backyard (a sunny spot with a fence blocking the north wind) and started digging. I thought 4 feet apart would be enough distance for two trachycarpus, but if you’d like to keep the fronds from touching I recommend at least 6 feet apart or planting them at very different sizes so one is always taller than the other. They look great in groups, but for the pool area, I would have preferred to keep them a little farther apart so they both have some room to shine!

In December I wrap the fronds up with rope or garden twine and cover with C7 or C9 christmas lights. These lights get hot so use sparingly. LED christmas lights will not work because they don’t generate heat. When temperatures drop below 20F at night, I wrap my Trachycarpus with frost cloth, but I only turn the lights on if temperatures drop into the mid teens or colder. The lights go off as soon as temperatures begin to warm into the 20s. I don’t like to keep the lights on for long because it can pose a fire risk. Be careful if you use anything electric to heat your plants. Some northern gardeners have killed their outdoor palms from the heat!

Trachycarpus fortunei cannot survive in New York City long term without protection (at least not in its current climate). They will survive mild winters unprotected, sometimes with ease. In New York these palms are typically undamaged by winter if low temperatures stay above 15F. They can return from 10F in New York, but are very borderline with temperatures that drop below that. Every windmill palm I know of that was not protected in the New York area, died when temperatures dropped into the lower single digits in 2018.

Lowest Annual Winter Temperatures

Here are the lowest temperatures at the Newark Airport and in my backyard for each year since I started growing palms in 2009. In red are years where Windmill Palms will grow without protection. Blue are years where these palms will be damaged or die from cold exposure. (I began recording temperatures in January 2013).

There are more years where Trachycarpus fortunei can survive in the New York City metro than there are years where it cannot. However, it just takes one cold night to destroy a palm that has grown effortlessly for years. We see this time and time again with other cities across the country. Even in warm climates like Florida, every 10-30 years a hard freeze will kill tender tropical palms in much of the state (while native palm species remain entirely unharmed).

Swipe to see how the palms were damaged after the winter of 2019.

I’m now the proud owner of a trendy houseplant | Here’s why they’re in such high demand.

Today I made a very exciting plant purchase. If you’re like me and follow a lot of “plant people” on social media, you’ve seen gorgeous rare houseplants on so many people’s wishlist. Gone are the days where anthuriums are just for beautiful flowers – now people know about the incredible foliage on the rarer species in the genus!

I was looking to dabble into the world of trendy houseplants without buying something really high maintenance. Philodendron is a great plant genus that’s usually a winner for indoor growing. Anthuriums can be tricky, but there are a few species that make good indoor houseplants. With all of this considered, I decided to buy an Anthurium crystallinum, Philodendron tortum, and Philodendron Ring of Fire. I plan on keeping the philodendrons out on my porch during the summer and maybe bringing the Anthurium outside occasionally so it can experience some high humidity days and rain water. I am going to treat these like I do every other houseplant. This way I’ll truly see if they’re finicky or low maintenance.

From left to right: Anthurium crystallinum, Philodendron “Ring of Fire”, Philodendron tortum.

Anthurium crystallinum

Anthurium crystallinum is beyond gorgeous. The foliage pattern is a work of art and if you look closely, you’ll see sparkles within the leaf veins. This plant can’t handle direct light, although mine will receive some bright morning sunlight right against my north facing window. I am going to plant it in a mix of sphagnum moss and peat moss.

What I’m most excited for: New leaves! I can’t wait to see what this plant looks like when it’s full. It’s a show stopper even with just 3 leaves

My biggest concern: Can I meet its humidity requirements indoors? I plan on bringing it outside throughout the summer so it can get the humidity it needs, but winter in South Carolina is dry. I feel there may be a point in my life where I am literally taking a shower with this plant – I wish I was kidding! (Would anyone even be surprised?)

Philodendron tortum

This plant instantly grabbed my attention because its foliage looks like a palm tree. It’s also known as a skeleton philodendron – which I personally don’t think is very flattering. Let’s call it a palm tree philodendron (or perhaps by it’s botanical name, Philodendron tortum!). It’s a climbing plant, but it seems to stay relatively small, at least for a while.

What I’m most excited for: A “palm tree look” without the palm tree size! There are very few plants that can replicate lacy palm fronds and stay tiny. This plant will look amazing on the windowsill and right on my patio table during the summer months.

My biggest concern: Will it be happy in regular potting mix? I am considering splurging on a specially developed philodendron mix. You can find these soil mixes online from various sources, and it might be worth the extra money. Time will tell!

Philodendron “Ring of Fire”

I actually didn’t intend to by this plant. I had an Anthurium warocqueanum in my hand when I looked down and realized that was going to be a huge pain to keep alive. One of the nursery staff saw me put the Anthurium down and said “I thought you were going to pick up the ring of fire”. Of course I couldn’t ignore what fate had in store and decided to give this beauty a try.

What I’m excited for: This plant fills my appetite for variegated foliage patterns (and then some). The new leaves emerge with reddish and pink tones, which is why it’s given the nickname “ring of fire”. It seems to be a large and vigorous grower. I LOVE obnoxious big plants. If that means I can’t have company in my living room, so be it! My plants are all the company I need.

My biggest concern: I don’t have one yet. That’s actually what I’m most worried about. Is this plant going to be more difficult than I’m anticipating? We’ll find out together!

I’m far from a plant newbie, but the trendy houseplant world is definitely new to me – and to the world. I remember buying my first plant when I was just 8 years old. It was a Dracaena fragrans (corn plant) and nearly 20 years later, that same plant is still alive and well at my parents house. To this day, I think of all the fun I had choosing plants with my grandma, but in the year 2021, the hobby has also been adopted by plenty of my peers. Millennials have made houseplants cool – and their popularity is soaring to record levels. Look at the google search trend for the three plant species I purchased. Few if any people were interested in googling them prior to about 2019. Their popularity skyrocketed after April 2020, and has remained high ever since. Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge influence on the houseplant hobby and gardening in general.

Google trend for Anthurium crystallinum, Philodendron “Ring of Fire”, and Philodendron tortum.

My favorite thing about gardening is how accessible it is to anyone. You can start a garden without any money at all, and it’ll be beautiful. However, if you’re looking for a plant in short supply with huge demand, it will cost you a lot! On eBay, the most expensive plant cuttings go for more than $3000. (We’re talking unrooted stems here!). To make matters even worse, there are a lot of plant scammers out there online, so do your research.

Would you rather a house plant or a downpayment on a house? Decisions, Decisions! These are legitimate plant auctions on eBay. Yikes!

When demand was lower, these plants were a lot less expensive. I remember at a Rutgers plant sale (my alma mater) in 2015, there was a beautiful variegated Monstera for around $50. Anthurium clarinervium was only $10 at that sale – now they’re worth more than $100! The day will come when a variegated Monstera isn’t going to cost $600! Many of these plants are pretty easy to propagate so in a few years, I do think supply will catch up and prices will drop. Philodendron burkin is a prime example. The plant was very difficult to find a few years ago, but it’s available in Lowes now. I do think the popularity of plants in the pandemic will continue to push prices up. There are more people buying plants than ever. There’s a lot of power in patience when it comes to gardening. If you don’t have the money for the plant you want now – just bookmark that web page and come back to it in a few years!

“Rutgers Day” Plant Sale on Cook Campus. April 2015.

Wisteria: It’s a beauty AND a beast if you choose the wrong one

I opened up my car window the other day and was cradled by the beautiful smells of early April in South Carolina, courtesy of the forest of purple wisteria blooms. These plants light up the forest each spring as they reach into the tops of even the tallest trees. That’s part of the problem. The most common wisteria species in the southeast actually don’t even belong here and are choking off our beautiful native plants in the process.

Non-Native Wisteria

Japanese and Chinese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda & Wisteria sinensis) aren’t native to the southern states, but they’re iconic and are all over the place. That’s probably not by choice, because these vines are impossible to get rid of. The vines produce a thicket of roots and offshoots all around them choking plants that grow underneath and eventually toppling all but the strongest trees. Not exactly what a home gardener has in mind for perfect pergola plant! They also only bloom 2-3 weeks a year. The blooms are here for a good time, not a long time as I like to say! Unfortunately the vines are here to stay.

Wisteria trees, are just Japanese or Chinese wisteria vines that have been trained to stand upright overtime and come with all the same problems. These trees are a constant maintenance project because the plants grow out of control so quickly, offshoots readily pop up around the mother plant, and birds eat wisteria seeds and drop them in other parts of the yard or in nearby forests.

Native Wisteria

Fortunately, there’s an alternative that’s better. Let me introduce our beautiful native wisteria, Wisteria frutescens! I planted one for my parents in New York City sold as “Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls'”. Let me say, it was instant gratification because it’s better than our non-native wisteria in so many ways. American Wisteria still produces the beautiful chandeliers of blooms (I’ll admit the blooms are smaller and the fragrance is more subtle, but the look is similar!). Unlike Japanese or Chinese wisteria, American wisteria are the perfect size for a garden arbor or pergola and bloom at a younger age. The most exciting part is American Wisteria will occasionally re-bloom in the summer!

I’ve had only positive experiences with Wisteria frutescens and highly recommend it to anyone interested in growing wisteria. Some internet gardeners claim American Wisteria is slow growing, but that has not been my experience at all. My parent’s vines grow about 4-6 feet each season which is the perfect speed to carefully train the vine to grow the way you want. The American Wisteria I planted for them will completely cover the pergola about 4 years after I planted it which seems very reasonable to me.

Another thing I love is how well this vine cooperates with other nearby plants. I planted a Passiflora caerulea with the Wisteria frutescens and they’re practically best friends. When one plant stops blooming, the other starts and the star shaped leaves on the Passiflora blend pretty nicely with the Wisteria. Passiflora incarnata would have been a better choice to keep everything native, but I haven’t had as much luck with incarnata in my parent’s yard.

Next time you see a plant you love, start digging for native alternatives. Sometimes you’ll find a plant that’s even better than the one on your wish list proving you don’t have to sacrifice creativity just because you’re planting native!

A few of Alex’s Forecasts

South Carolina experiences 4 seasons of weather – sometimes all in one day! Here’s a sample of my weather shows from the mornings this past year. Thanks so much for watching!

MARCH 26, 2021 Full Forecast

A warm and humid weekend ahead, with a few storms.

MARCH 18, 2021 Explainer

A severe weather threat didn’t pan out. The morning after, I explained why.

February 12, 2021 Full Forecast

Alex delivers the morning forecast on a cold and rainy weekend for South Carolina.

December 18, 2020 Full Forecast from Home

Meteorologist Alex Calamia explains why pockets of cold are lingering in parts of the Midlands this morning and a peek at the Christmas forecast

November 27, 2020 Full Forecast

Alex gives the mild forecast for the end of November and tracks a winter storm that’ll bring South Carolina’s first hard freeze of the season for the first week of December.

November 6, 2020 Full Forecast

It’s Hurricane Season. Alex shows how Eta in the tropics brings the potential for heavy rain and record warm temperatures next week and breaks down the hour by hour forecast for the weekend here in the South Carolina Midlands.

August 26, 2020 Full Forecast

It’s Hurricane Season. Alex is tracking Hurricane Laura, which is just hours from landfall in Louisiana. Meanwhile, the South Carolina Midlands reaches the 90s for the first time in more than a week!

June 9, 2020 Full Forecast

It’s Hurricane Season. Alex gives South Carolina the morning forecast. The remnants of Cristobal brings an increased chance for afternoon thunderstorms to develop.

March 20, 2020 Full Forecast from Home

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our team practices social distancing. I presented my weather forecast from my porch at home for several weeks.

What does the “Average last freeze” really mean?

If there was a synonym for the month of March, it’d have something to do with see-saws and rollercoasters. Winter starts to lose its grip across the country, and at times it may seem spring has arrived for good, but freezing temperatures almost always make a comeback after these warm spells. Most spring blooming shrubs and trees can handle brief drops below freezing and sail through light freezes, but tender summer crops like tomatoes, squash, basil, and so many others will wilt and die at the first signs of frost. The magic number is 32F and a single degree could make the difference between life or death, regardless of how warm the weather was prior. With this blog post, I’ll share a few helpful ways to determine the frost and freeze risk for your home garden so you never have to deal with an unexpected spring frost again.

When to expect the last freeze in South Carolina? Here’s my report for WLTX News 19 from March 1, 2021.

Average Last Freeze Dates aren’t always useful

It takes just one night below freezing to ruin an entire summer garden, and that’s why the average last freeze date is one of the most important things gardeners pay attention to. Contrary to belief, the average last freeze date is not considered the “safe date” for planting tender plants. The last freeze date is a 30 year average. Even in “normal” years (whatever that means!) the last freeze of the season can fall before or after the average date. The last freeze of winter will vary year after year, and forecast numbers are only accurate for a few days out. Fortunately, weather does follow a “pattern” and that can give an idea of the risk for a future freeze beyond the 7 day forecast.

Dry and warm weather patterns are one of the most risky in early spring for early plants. Long spells of dry weather comes with a lot of sunshine. This can give warm weather plants a great start to the growing season during the daytime, but calm winds and clear skies at night can drop temperatures very quickly. In this scenario garden temperatures may drop dangerously close to that devastating 32-degree Fahrenheit reading. March 2017 was my first spring in North Florida. We had 3 days reach 89F, but the coldest morning of the month was a bone chilling 25F. That temperature came 2 weeks after the average last freeze. The dry weather was the reason for the huge temperature swing – we saw less than an inch of rain for the whole month. Anyone who has spent time in Florida knows rain is the state’s specialty!

March is no calmer at my new home in Columbia, SC where temperatures have historically ranged from a balmy 94F to an unbelievable 4F. While record high temperatures are challenged much more frequently in this warmer world than record cold, anything is possible in spring. The average last freeze date is March 23rd, but 30% of years in Columbia experience at or below freezing temperatures in April. I started tomatoes and eggplant in late March last year because the weather pattern appeared mild into April (and it was!), but I knew there was still a risk.

I suggest never placing tender plants in their garden spots permanently until about 2 weeks after the average last freeze. This way gardeners can keep an eye on temperature trends before committing to planting cold sensitive crops in the ground. Typically the first week of April is a safe time to plant for summer in Columbia, but it’s important to keep the long term forecast in mind because freezing temperatures in mid-April are not unheard of.

What can you plant before the average last freeze?

Gandy’s Garden at WLTX is filled with so many greens this time of the year. It’s easy to start fast maturing greens like spinach, lettuce, arugula, radishes, turnips, and snow peas from seed now. These make fantastic potted plants. They’re beautiful, tasty, and hardy! Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kale, brussels sprouts, parsley, and cilantro can be planted nearly assoon as the ground thaws out. They easily survive 25F temperatures without damage, but will not grow until afternoon temperatures are regularly in the 50sF. Most of these plants overwintered for me here in South Carolina, but my mom in New York City just sent me a picture of her parsley that survived the entire winter outside in New York City. It was buried under 2 feet of snow at one point!

(March 5, 2021) Freshly planted lettuce and spinach seedlings in the garden outside WLTX here in South Carolina

Spring in the southeast can quickly become too hot for cool loving greens. I consider March to be too late to plant broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, parsley, and cilantro from seeds in South Carolina because there’s only about 8-10 weeks left before our temperatures regularly reach the 90sF. window. Once warm weather arrives in May, it will force these greens into bloom and they’ll lose their flavors. These longer lived cold loving greens can be started from seedlings in the southeast in March and reach full maturity before the blazing heat of summer arrives.


Spring freezes are a PAIN, but you can start to plant these in the garden weeks before the last freeze! #plants #planty #garden #healthy #healthyfood

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Why I love Camellias

February is a cold and gloomy month for many across the country, even in South Carolina. That’s why spring flowers are on my mind, and I’m sure I’m not the only gardener! Luckily, we don’t have to wait until the weather warms up to enjoy one of the best blooms of the year – Camellias! Whether you’re looking for flowers in late Fall or late winter, there’s a camellia that will brighten your garden. Even when these plants aren’t in bloom they bring a beautiful dense screen of glossy leaves.

It’s no secret that southern gardeners love Camellias. Most of the year, you wouldn’t know they’re there because the deep green foliage fades in the background, but it’s impossible to miss them in full bloom. The peak blooming season only lasts for a month or 2, but you can stagger varieties based on bloom time to extend the flower season in your garden for months. Camellias are native to Asia, but their blooms are so beloved, it’s the state flower of Alabama! The most common flowering camellia species are C. japonica and C. sasanqua, and each has hundreds of varieties to choose from!

Camellia Japonica

Camellia japonica is arguably the most beautiful bloomer in the genus because it offers the largest flowers. Japonica typically bloom in late winter or spring. In the south the blooms start as early as December and fade in April. Up north, they start in March and bloom until May, and it varies widely depending on the cultivar you choose. Most japonicas have larger leaves than sasanqua and spent flowers fall to the ground completely intact instead of petal by petal like sasanqua. Make sure to give these plenty of room, eventually they can grow 20 feet tall and wide, but are slow growing and take a while to get there.

There are seemingly endless varieties to choose from cultivated for their growth habits, and bloom shape, size, and color. Some blooms focus on the showy yellow stamens, others are fragrant and have a peony shape like “Kramer’s Supreme”. “Professor Sargent” flowers are really complex with a row of flat petals on the edge that jumble into a ball toward the middle. Camellia japonica ‘Hakuhan-kujaku’ is on my wish list because the leaves are narrow and long like a willow tree and the flowers hang like a lantern. The most cold tolerant camellia varieties belong to the japonica species.

Northern growers will have much more luck with japonica than sasanqua! There are some selections that can survive temperature drops briefly below 0F. The flower buds are less cold tolerant than the plant itself and might fail to survive a particularly harsh winter. Ironically in the south, japonica blooms are more prone to freeze damage because of their tendency to bloom during the coldest months of the year in lower latitudes.

Camellia Sasanqua

Camellia sasanqua are known as the “fall blooming camellia”. The leaves are much smaller than japonica and the flowers are less showy. These shrubs have a lot of “flower power” and can bring just as much color as their cousins. The bloom season is much earlier in the season (October through February). I’ve noticed these flowers are less prone to freeze damage than japonica, but the plant is less cold tolerant and typically won’t survive temperatures in the single digits. Definitely a trade off! Japonica and sasanqua both prefer protection from afternoon sunshine, but sasanqua does appear to be more sun tolerant. Sasanqua is often the victim of bad pruning practices from landscapes who decide to prune these plants in fall right before they bloom – taking off most of the flower buds as a result.

Let’s Dive Deeper

Camellias are incredibly low maintenance, but it takes a lot to elevate a beautiful camellia flower into an award winning flower. That extra attention is part of the fun for the experts I met with when I reported at the 2019 Camellia flower show at Kanapaha Botanical Garden in Gainesville, FL. The blooms were huge at the event. Growers have a special way of doing this. They select the best camellia buds early in the season and inject the site with a growth hormone so the shrubs can focus on making a really impressive bloom for the competition.

Meteorologist Alex Calamia reports for WCJB on the 2019 Camellia show at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, FL.

Camellia blooms come in red, white, pink, and a blend of colors in between, but the future is looking bright – and I mean that literally because there are attempts to develop a yellow camellia. Yellow is a very rare color in the world of camellias. Camellia nitidissima was discovered less than 100 years ago, and it’s the only yellow blooming camellia being grown internationally. The species has very tiny flowers, but one day larger yellow camellia flowers may be available through selective breeding and hybridization.

I’ve talked a lot about Camellia flowers in this post, but the most special thing about Camellias are their leaves. It’s the reason we have tea! Camellia sinensis is known as the tea plant because nearly every tea is made from it. Sweet tea is an iconic drink of the south, but the only commercial tea plantation in the United States is in South Carolina on Wadmalaw Island. Camellia sinensis doesn’t have showy blooms like other members of the genus, but I can’t imagine the world without them.

My Camellia Experience

I grew up in New York where camellias were (and still are) a rare site. My grandmother on Long Island had a massive Camellia tree that I talked about in the video posted above. Her camellia shrub was 15 feet tall and over 50 years old. People would ring her doorbell in April asking what kind of rose she had. Of course unlike roses, camellias keep their leaves all year long, bloom earlier, and are much bigger.

New York City and most of Long Island is a USDA zone 7, which means the coldest winter temperatures can fall between 0F and 10F. That’s warm enough to grow camellias, but some camellia varieties are less reliable than others because of the duration of cold in New York. I believe my grandmother’s camellia is “Kumasaka”. I’ve also had luck with “April Rose” and “Kramer’s Supreme” in my parent’s yard on Staten Island. We had a Herme Camellia for more than a decade, but a few winters with near 0F temperatures eventually killed that variety. It was also in a full sun location that it didn’t appreciate. Camellia sasanqua “Long Island Pink” did not survive long term in my parent’s yard. We believe that shrub was in too much shade. There are other sasanqua in my parents’ neighborhood on Staten Island that are very healthy, but they are always less impressive than the japonicas this far north.

I don’t have a yard of my own in South Carolina, so I’m enjoying my camellia as a potted plant. Unfortunately, there aren’t any dwarf camellias, so eventually these will have to be planted in the ground. “Here for a good time, not a long time” is an appropriate expression for potted camellias. They’re a great temporary potted plant because even young camellia plants produce a lot of blooms. I’m growing R.L. Wheeler which has huge flowers and beautiful red and white markings. In South Carolina, this cultivar starts blooming in late January/early February and blooms through March. When summer comes, the camellia is a great pot filler for some hanging annual flowers.

Debunking “Moon Phase Gardening”

Do you believe a full moon can bring out the worst in people? Well there are some gardeners that think the moon can affect plants too. The idea is called moon phase gardening and the belief is the moon’s gravity can affect the way plants process water and nutrients. A little research and you might find yourself believing the practice is based on some solid science, but it’s not! Here are a few of the rules behind moon phase gardening and the science that says to avoid taking this gardening trend too seriously.

Meteorologist Alex Calamia debunks some of the claims behind “moon phase gardening”.

Myth 1: Plant certain crops during certain moon phases.

The moon is our closest neighbor in the sky and perhaps that’s how the idea behind moon gardening started in the first place. Moon garden folklore goes back as far as the Mayans. There’s a belief the moon’s position in the sky has an impact on living things. 

Moon phases have an affect on some aspects of our world, particularly ocean tides. The highest high tides and lowest high tides happen during the new and full moon phases because the moon and the sun are lined up. During these two moon phases, the moon’s gravity isn’t lowered by the sun’s gravity, in fact, it’s enhanced by it! Oceans make up more than 70% of the Earth’s surface and have a vast surface area so even something so minor like the moon’s gravity can bulge the surface of the ocean upward.

The idea behind “moon phase gardening”

Gardeners using moon phase gardening may explain the moon’s gravity can effect the water flow inside plants too. That’s why people planting based on moon phases say to plant leafy greens when the moon is waxing (getting closer to full moon), root crops when the moon is waning (leaving the full moon phase), or plant leafy greens during the new moon. This idea is flawed because water doesn’t passively ebb and flow in plants like it does in the ocean. 

“If that were true, you’d have sap moving up and down twice a day on plants. That would just wreak havoc on their system”, Clemson extension agent Jackie Jordan explains.

Unlike the ocean, plants are constantly defying even the Earth’s strong gravity. Each plant contains hormones that tell seeds to sprout roots down and shoots up using cues from gravitational forces. As plants grow they develop a network of structures called the xylem and the phloem. The Xylem transports water upward, and the phloem transports nutrients from photosynthesis throughout the plant. When theses structures aren’t doing their job effectively (like hot and humid days or after a damaging freeze), plants wilt. There’s no observable change depending on moon phases and the moon’s gravity is so insignificant to a plant that it’s not possible for moon phases to affect plants in this way.

Myth 2: A full moon helps plants grow faster

It’s true that plants get an extra boost when days are longer or brighter. Alaska is known for producing mega sized crops each summer because of the nearly endless sunlight and some plants can live for years off the florescent lights in an office building. The light in both these instances is a lot more significant than even the brightest full moon which, according to Jackie Jordan, is 400-thousand times dimmer than full sunlight. Compared to even a street light, the full moon doesn’t have enough light to affect plants noticeably, but Jordan mentions artificial light does have an affect on plants that require shorter days to begin blooming – like chrysanthemum and poinsettias.

Full moons do historically have an important role in gardens because farmers used to rely on these brighter nights to work in the fields. This is why the last full moon of the summer is called the “Harvest moon” and many other full moon phases have names deriving from farming.

Plumeria flowers on my porch during a full moon

Planting at the right time is important

When it comes to moon phase gardening, experts agree “It might be something fun, but I’d say you’re better off if you pay attention to things that really do matter, temperature, humidity”, Jackie Jordan explains. Moon phase gardening limits gardeners to only a few days each month for planting and harvesting certain crops. This is detrimental for crops that need to be harvested almost daily. Peas need to be harvested constantly, otherwise the pods will become hard and inedible and the plant will stop producing new pods because it’s already finished it’s purpose – reproduction.

Make no mistake, timing is everything, but instead of focusing on moon phases, gardeners should pay close attention to the weather and the climate needs an individual plant requires for success. The Clemson Extension has a great resource on their website for gardeners in South Carolina that need some advice about when to plant certain crops to avoid damaging weather or insects. The weather can change in an instant so when the timing is right, take some time to start planting!

These plants are the most cold tolerant for winter gardens

I’ve been so busy in the garden the past few months, and I think I earned a little break. I still want to see plants though – that’s where the winter garden comes in! Unlike the summertime, there’s no need to worry about watering, bugs, weeding or fertilizing this time of the year. Talk about a relief! The only variable in the winter garden is extreme cold, and that affects some plants more than others. So I decided this year I’m not going to cover my beautiful greens with a frost cloth so I can see which plants are the most cold tolerant and ultimately the lowest maintenance. I’ve made some interesting observations that will help any gardener extend their growing season with little effort!

Gardening isn’t just for summertime

When I grew up in New York, I thought gardens could only be productive during the warm and frost free days of summer. I had no idea how incredible winter gardening is until I moved to South Carolina and witnessed it for myself. Plants really struggle in the hot and humid weather here during the summer time, and the plants that can handle our weather often succumb to fungus and bugs. Winter in South Carolina is far from frost free (the average winter morning in Columbia drops into the 30s!), and yet I’m growing dozens of plants. Whether you’re a southern gardener looking to garden during the cool months, or a northern gardener looking to extend the growing season on the frosty fringes of spring and fall, here’s my breakdown on what plants are most reliable.

The winter garden at 25F

Some lettuce varieties are unreliable when temperatures drop below 25F. Romaine seems to be particularly sensitive. These plants began to show signs of damage at 25 degrees and at 20 degrees, I lost about 70% of the romaine lettuce. Cauliflower and broccoli plants survived temperatures down to 25F, but the budding florets were destroyed at these temperatures. Last year I covered the lettuce and cauliflower with frost cloths at 25 degrees and there was no damage.

The lettuce and cauliflower plants in milder parts of the yard survived 20F (our coldest morning so far this winter) without protection. Bibb lettuce had no damage even in the cold parts of my yard. That was a really pleasant surprise! Some of the fancy leaf lettuce varieties (I was not given a cultivar name) also survived our coldest morning without any problem. There are some varieties of lettuce that are reportedly reliable down to 10F temperatures. That should give a lot of gardeners up north (and here in the south) some hope!

What happened at 20F

Cauliflower and broccoli plants received a lot of damage during our coldest morning of the winter so far which was officially 20F in Columbia, SC. A few of my broccoli and cauliflower plants survived the deep freeze, but most appear to be a total loss.

I’m happy to report many plants survived our coldest morning so far this winter without any issues. Kale, cabbage, pansies, arugula, and cardoon suffered no foliage burn. Parsley and cilantro had a little cosmetic damage, but suffered no major issues. My parents’ parsley plants in New York City are still green in January too, and that’s after 6 inches of snow and 19F. I have no worries about those in South Carolina! The lettuce varieties I mentioned above like the bibb, fancy leaf, and a few lucky romaine plants managed very well through this hard freeze.

The results:

Cauliflower70% loss at 20F. Damage begins at 25F
LettuceRomaine was 70% loss at 20F. Damage begins at 25F. Some varieties like Bibb proved more cold hardy
ParsleyA little tip burn at 20F. Probably not cold hardy reliably much below 20F, but survived 6 inches of snow in my parents NYC yard and remains green in January.
CilantroNo damage at 20F. It could be more cold tolerant than parsley in the garden.
KaleNo damage at 20F. Completely winter hardy in South Carolina.
CabbageNo damage at 20F. Completely winter hardy in South Carolina.
Brussels SproutsNo damage at 20F, but the sprouts may be more cold sensitive. I’ve heard gardeners mulch the stems to protect sprouts in cold climates.

Seeds that germinate outside in the winter

Winter is a great time to sow seeds in the ground for the early spring garden. I replaced the cauliflower with new seeds and they’re already sprouting despite temperatures in the 50s during the day with nights in the 30s. I planted kohlrabi and broccoli rabe seeds with the cauliflower and had successful germination on those as well. I started arugula seeds in November and now I have leaves to pick for my January salads! I sowed spinach and lettuce seeds on my porch in early January and an expecting those to be ready for picking in March. My arugula seeds sprouted beautifully and after 2 months are ready to be picked. I started snow peas from seed in the fall. The plants germinated but haven’t grown much in recent weeks. They appear to be dormant right now, but were completely unharmed by the 20F weather.

I’m excited for spring, but the winter garden is something special too!