Forgive us if we call this season “hurricane summer.”
On the Gulf Coast, that’s not just a weather forecast: It’s a verifiable season, running from roughly August 15 to October 15. Every week, a new low tries to pirouette into a tropical storm. Most of us are just resigned to it, the way New Englanders are resigned to shoveling snow.
But for those who follow the seasons on the Gulf Coast, hurricane summer is like a second spring and the start of our longest, easiest growing season. If you learn to take advantage of what happens now, your garden will produce a bounty of flowers and food over the next seven or eight months.
Even if you don’t notice the change in the season, the flowers and creatures of the Gulf Coast sense it. This is the great season of wildflowers, when the blazing star sends up plumes all over the pine hills and ornate crowns of red petals that we call “spider lilies” rise naked in city yards. Haven’t you wondered what possessed them to come out just now?
The white shrimp, the Gulf Coast’s gourmet shrimp, are at their annual peak, fat and thick in Mobile Bay (sad that they’ve been supplanted by the browns, which we once foisted off on tourists). Swarms of swallows and swifts glide like a rollercoaster over the Mobile Delta, looking for a winter home.
For these creatures, hurricane summer is as different from the Gulf summer that preceded it as it is from the fall season that will follow, two months from now.
Remember how it rained every day, starting in late June and through the first of August? If you’ve paid attention to the Gulf Coast weather for any length of time, you’ll know that’s not unusual; it’s just a feature of the season. Those daily, localized thunderstorms will begin to dry up, as they always do right about the third or fourth week in August.
And the rains we get may be intense, but they come from far away places – from tropical storms developing deep in the Gulf, or from early cold fronts sliding off the continent. They’re irregular and unpredictable, so you may need to start watering in a week or two. With the rains gone, the days start getting hotter even as the nights gradually get cooler, working toward the clear, dry season of fall.
All these are signs that you should be planting and spending every moment you can muster in your garden. Yes, I know that over the colder parts of the country, spring planting is a spring ritual. Alabamians too often adopt the spring planting practices of their Yankee gardening role models in Connecticut.
But if we thought carefully about where we are, in this underside-of-the-world place called Alabama, and if we really appreciated how different it is from Massachusetts or Michigan, we’d understand exactly why folks up north plant all their vegetables in spring, and why we ought to be planting most of ours in hurricane summer and in fall.
Yes, you could plant lettuce whenever you imagine spring comes to Mobile. That season actually starts about the middle of February, but out of our great respect for gardeners in New Jersey, many do their “spring” planting in April, when our spring is already gone.
Let’s say you’re the early bird on the block and you sow lettuce before the end of March. You’ll harvest lettuce for two or three weeks, at best four, before the bitterness of American summer sets in, and your lettuce bolts. But what happens if you’ve got lettuce ready to plant in hurricane summer? The soil is still hot, but you can start it in small potting flats on the porch, plant it out in late September, early October just as hurricane summer ends, and you’ll be harvesting lettuce October, November, December, January, February, March, maybe a week or two in April. Think spring planting like a New Englander and you get two weeks of lettuce. Think spring planting like you live on the Gulf Coast, and you get lettuce for six months and then some.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Bloom of the Month
They’re the blooms that never fail, even during the hottest days of summer, because all that spectacular color isn’t a bloom at all. There’s nothing more colorful and varied than the leaves of modern hybrid coleus. And because it’s the leaves, not the flowers, that bear the burden of the show, they never stop looking good. Experiment: While coleus are traditionally used in shady areas, new varieties tolerate quite a bit of direct sunlight.
Signs of the Season
Each day, the constellation Orion, along with Sirius, the Dog Star, rise in the eastern sky with the sun, a signal the dog days are upon us. But here on the Gulf Coast, Sirius is a wet dog, and the droughts begin only when the dog days are done and Sirius rises long before dawn.
August isn’t just for vegetable planting: think Nasturtiums, petunias, marigolds, zinnias, sunflowers and many other flowers started in August will bloom their best for months. Start them in pots on the porch so the young seedlings won’t be reliant on the undependable rainfall at the end of this month.
Ripe for picking
They weren’t called jelly palms for nothing. All along the Gulf Coast, the silver-leafed palm we sometimes call pindo palm will be ripening its bright orange fruit. Your grandmother knew it made great jelly. But raw, they have the flavor of mangoes, peaches and a touch of tart orange. Don’t be afraid: They’re an August treat.
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 Sherry Stimpson Frost