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What to expect in your garden after this winter’s weather

By Debbie Menchek

For The Sun News

Climate change may have brought us a record breaking warm winter. But the frosty and freezing temperatures we experienced were within normal averages for the time of year.

It is not unusual to have a late frost or freeze. That’s why we are repeatedly advised not to plant tender perennials and annuals outside until after the last frost date.

You can expect hardy perennials, shrubs and trees to recover even if they have suffered some damage. However, some plants have lost their blooms and fruit this year. We have already learned that the blueberry, peach and strawberry crops were devastated by frost and freeze.

Brown Turkey Figs

Flowers, buds and new growth are vulnerable to freezing temperatures. Don’t cut back any freeze damage yet. Wait until plants are visibly growing again. New leaf buds may well push out where old leaves or buds were killed.

Brown Turkey Figs, for example typically have two crops of fruit. The first one in late spring is on old wood and the second in mid-summer is on new wood. If early buds and leaves were frozen you will likely lose your early crop. That is not a lamentable loss because the first crop is not particularly flavorful. The more flavorful second crop may be fine. You’ll have to wait and see.

Gardeners are urged against fertilizing until after the last frost date. The warm weather this winter made that guideline a tough sell because plants were leafing out and greening up as much as a month early. The freezing weather we experienced was within normal averages. Winter’s warm temperatures were not. No matter which chart you look at the last frost date in this coastal area is not until April.

Butterfly Weed: Yes. Butterfly Bush: Maybe Not

Butterfly bush, Buddleya (also spelled Buddleia) davidii, is a butterfly magnate—a season long nectar source for butterflies. There are more than 100 cultivars which include various bloom colors, but butterflies still prefer the lavender-pink of the species. Dwarf varieties and variegated leaves add to the options.

Buddleya may sound like a good prospect for your garden but be aware that it is invasive. It is listed as a noxious weed in 46 states, including South Carolina. Its seeds are spread by the wind. They easily escape the garden and end up in areas like coastal forest edges, roadsides, abandoned railroad rights of way, stream and river banks, rural dumps and surface mined land. There Buddleya colonizes and out-competes native plants, some of which have been growing there for centuries. As the butterfly bush chokes out native plants it upsets the ecological balance.

Butterflies need not just nectar but also host plants so they can reproduce. Butterfly bushes provide only nectar for butterflies; they don’t provide a plant on which to lay their eggs which cycle into beautiful butterflies. In fact, no native North American moth or butterfly caterpillar feeds on Buddleya.

Gardeners love Butterfly Bushes, however, and don’t want to delete them from their gardens. The plants are exceeding floriferous and attract a large number of butterflies. Consequently plant breeders have developed essentially sterile plants for consumers to buy. Look for the Buddleya Lo and Behold series and the Flutterby Grande group of hybrids.

Similarly named—but not to be confused with the Butterfly Bush—is Butterfly Weed, Aschlepias tuberosa, which is a native species of milkweed. Unlike other milkweeds Butterfly Weed does not contain white milky sap. Instead its sap is watery clear. Flower colors range from red to yellow with blooms that are mostly shades of vibrant orange. Butterfly Weed attracts butterflies, including Monarchs and Swallowtails, as well as beneficial insects, bees and other pollinators. It and other milkweeds are host plants for Monarch butterflies.

Aschlepias tuberosa does not transplant well because it has a deep woody taproot, but it grows easily from seed. Plant the seeds directly in the ground in fall for germination the following spring. Seeds need three months of cold stratification in the ground or one month in the refrigerator. There is still time this spring to cold treat seeds in the refrigerator and plant seeds. Butterfly weed is a reliable perennial that blooms from June through August and stays in its designated spot.

Debbie Menchek is a Master Gardener for Clemson University.