We've already been through several phases of our spring gardens in Ohio, but I recently spent nearly three weeks south of the border - the Ohio border, that is - and spring was much further along there.
While I was gone, my husband sent me a photo of the clematis in full bloom outside our front door. Also coming into bloom during my trip were the azalea shrubs that we use as foundation plants close to the house, but here in the south, these plants are long gone.
During my trip, I noticed the gardeners have been planting annuals for a couple weeks, while we're still waiting to ensure no final, potentially fatal frosts take out all our hard work and expense.
While we continue to bring our plants inside each night, in the south I saw hanging baskets filled with petunias and million bells swinging from their chains on most porches and Gerbera daisies and geraniums filling out borders along sidewalks and foundation beds.
Magnolia trees, once filled with fragrant blossoms are depleted, their white petals turning brown, and only a few are still clinging to the trees. I traveled as far as Mississippi on this trip, and I noticed two or three magnolia blooms still hanging on there, while North Carolina trees still had half their blossoms hanging on, an indication that spring and summer move northward until they eventually reach us.
Magnolias and mountain laurel are as common in southern states as lilacs are for us, which are more difficult to grow from North Carolina on because they require cool temperatures and a more alkaline soil.
I can imagine myself living where the growing season is longer, even without lilacs, and I get this feeling when I walk through southern garden centers and see the colorful hibiscus.
This is a warning to all northeast Ohio garden center shoppers. Don't fall for the colorful hibiscus, whether they are blooming as shrubs, or trained as standards, resembling small trees. Their large, flowers in varying shades of orange, salmon and yellow - my weakness is yellow with red or orange throats - are tropical. This means no matter what the sales clerk might tell you, they are not winter hearty to our zone 5 environment.
It really used to make me mad. Why did I only have to accept red, pink or white hibiscus in my garden? If I wanted a colorful, tropical variety, I had to find a place to winter over the plant. Usually around February and March, I would tell the plants, "Hang on, it won't be long now." They didn't often make it through the first winter.
But cultivators must have heard us. They saw what we wanted and went about the business of genetics. So far, a few new shades of those standard colors are available to us. Although they still aren't straying far from the typical red, pink and white, hardy hibiscus is now available in other shades including, but not limited to "Plum Crazy" a reddish-purple, and "Fantasia," a pale lavender, as well as "Old Yella," a flower with pale yellow buds that ultimately open up to creamy white with a deep red throat.
Don't despair. This is just the beginning and the likelihood that more colors of hardy hibiscus will be available in the future.
In our soil, hardy hibiscus will die back to the ground each winter. When you see all of your other perennials begin to show themselves in spring, but nothing where the hibiscus is planted, don't despair. They are slow to wake up in early summer, often waiting until the soil temperatures are at least 70 degrees. But once they do start to send up new shoots, the growth is rapid and by July you'll see buds forming on the stalks.
Hibiscus is a member of the Malvaceae family and is a close relative of hollyhocks, malva and Rose of Sharon. They like bright sun and their flowers can range anywhere from 5 to 12-inches in diameter. Larger varieties are given the common name, "dinner plate hibiscus" due to their large, plate-shaped blooms.
Many gardeners grow them in rows as hedge plants and once they start to flower, they continuously bloom until frost takes them down in the fall.
New plants should be put in the ground by mid-summer to ensure they have enough time to get somewhat established, otherwise they may not survive the first winter. It doesn't hurt to mulch them a bit, although I've never mulched my hibiscus, and it never fails to show itself each year in my garden.