Head in the Clouds

Find a spot, if you must, for that live oak or crepe myrtle. Add a few green bushes so the neighbors won’t talk. 

But the first thing you should do when planning your garden is to make a space for clouds.

Few of us do until it’s too late, and then we look around and wonder what in the world could be missing from the garden. Why isn’t it as bright and beautiful as we expected it to be? More sidewalks, a patio, another statue of birds or bunnies will surely make the garden sing. Sadly, we often fail to see that what’s missing from our gardens, and our lives, is a longer look at the clouds.

I’ve had gardens that were cloud deprived. The sprawling limbs of live oaks build a close and cozy room around us, but rooms have walls, and season after season I wasted with my nose to the ground, circling the garden as if it were a prison yard.

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I confess, I couldn’t wait to escape to the wide-open pinelands or the prairies, the Delta or Grand Bay. I didn’t understand why, until a friend said, “Look up, above your head, ” and I could see miles of clouds racing from one end of the sky to another. 

There are good and practical reasons why you should make more room for clouds in your garden. Any plant that can’t watch clouds streak across the blue sky of a spring day will inevitably decline. Clouds, in our climate, flutter across the sun in every season, like the eyelids of the sky. But if you can’t see clouds, the sun will never find you. And without sun, plants have no business in your yard. 

Step into your plants’ shoes – your patchy lawn, your fruitless fruit trees – and look up. If there’s no sunlit blue blinking out between the clouds,  they’ve been starved. It’s not those bags of fertilizer that fuel the growth of all that green, it’s the sun. 

But it’s not just the plants that need the clouds. It’s the gardener, too. 

I crave the ways the clouds illuminate the sunrise with conch-shell pink, cool blues and golds, the way they rip the sunset into ribbons of purple, red and orange. I get hungry for those summer afternoons when the sea breeze heaps whipped cream high above the Bay. I feel plugged into the power surge when a churning mass of blue storm cloud tumbles over distant hills. 

I don’t have to look up to know the clouds are there. On a hot July day, I can feel their cool shadows stretching out across the hot lawn. I made sure to build my garden pool to catch them, too. Water lilies and those big yellow bowls of lotus wouldn’t deign to bloom if rolling clouds weren’t reflected on the surface of the pond. On a May day, I’m in a daze, watching fish shimmer into a puff of clouds and suddenly spread wings, transformed as a kite or ibis soars into the cumulus overhead. 

The more clouds I can see, the happier we are, my garden and I. Most plants need a full day of sky to grow, flower and fruit, and sometimes I think I do, too. I’ve tried to content myself with the few shards of clouds framed in the gaps between magnolias and the oaks, but that’s like trying to catch the ocean in a paper cup. Watching clouds rise up in the wide west and trail off in the far east is like seeing the past, present and future parade past you. It’s the view of life I think we all need, and so seldom get to see.

As I say, you’ll have time to plant your trees and shrubs. But for your sake and your garden’s, first make a space for clouds.

Gulf Coast Almanac

Bloom of the Month
Flowers never sleep on the Gulf Coast. January is full-blown with camellias, tea olive, mahonias, edgeworthia and witch hazels. But what’s that spectacle that has landed in old Gulf Coast gardens? It’s the old-fashioned plant called fatsia. Those fat, five-fingered leaves would be enough to claim a prized garden space, but in January Fatsia explodes into a bright galaxy of Sputnik-like blooms. 

Signs of the Season
December trudged. January snaps back in spite of the cold. Each night is shorter, and cool season plants stretch to capture every new minute of sun. Those old-fashioned “stars” — the Italicus paperwhites so common in old yards — are ragged with bloom. Tiny kinglets, ruby-crowned and golden, fly in from Canada to groom the live oak limbs.

On a sunny day, never fear to sprinkle in a last dash of cool season flowers and annuals. The air may still be chill, but the earth almost never freezes on the Gulf Coast, and plants like broccoli, beets, snapdragons and delphiniums gather all the warmth they need from the ground.

Ripe for Picking
By the end of January, you won’t be able to keep up with the collards and the kale. Slow-as-Christmas cauliflowers are heading up; just cover the globe of buds when the nights get cold. And those last big radishes you forgot to pull in December? The frosts have made them rich and sweet.

The simple rule of midwinter pruning is: Don’t. Not in our climate. Unless plants are dead dormant, they respond to heavy pruning by putting on new growth. A few warm January days, and you’ll have new growth perfect to be blasted by the next round of cold. Spring is just another month away, and we’ll have plenty of time to sort it out then.

Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.

text by Bill Finch • photo by Beth maynor young

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