In Birmingham and Atlanta, they’re quietly raking up the year’s gardening dreams, stuffing them into plastic bags. In the upper South, frosts fall hard in November, and there’s nothing left to do but clean up the mess.
But the Gulf Coast is its own kind of South, and November here is the month of hope and plenty. It’s our bonus month, the days no one but those on the Coast should expect to enjoy. Most gardens along the Gulf and Mobile Bay are free of killing frosts until deep into December, and that allows an unusual convergence of seasons and flowers, colors and lights, fragrance and flavors that much of the world never experiences.
In my November garden, the seasons are colliding. Tufts of lettuce gleefully cavort with head-high Caribbean peppers. Collards consort with eggplants. Budding heads of broccoli and cauliflower find comfort in the shade of okra and butter beans. The cool season vegetables meet the warm season ones as they’re heading out the door, but this month, neither seems unhappy or out of place.
November days along the Coast are dry and sparkling, the nights are long and crisp, warm enough to plump the gourds and cool enough to turn cypress trees rusty orange. These daily swings in temperature ensure not only that our satsumas taste as sweet and bright as any citrus anywhere in the world, but they also ensure they look the part: Our satsumas ripen bright orange right on the tree, while fall citrus in central Florida have to be picked green, gassed in warehouses to develop orange color.
Long shadows mark the path of the sun’s decline, and it’s this low light that transforms the garden and the countryside. Colors seem to drip off flowers like wet paint. Fields of wild grasses glow as if they were lit from below. The low light puts a fresh face on plants that looked bland and bleached all summer long. In summer, azaleas, roses, marigolds — bloom as they might — just don’t produce flowers that catch the eye, yet they all seem to vibrate with color in late fall.
But the autumnal garden isn’t simply an extension of summer. There are plants that wait all year for this rare convergence of light and temperature: cassias and poinsettias, mums and Korean “Michaelmas daisies, ” the giant tree dahlias, sasanquas, that strange beloved Gulf Coast fruit called mirliton, forsythia sage, rosebud sage, Mexican sage, and the dozens of varieties of wild asters blooming on roadsides and in native forests from Dauphin Island up to the Red Hills.
What’s the Hold Up?
Why do they wait? Poinsettias offer the most famous example. You may have heard the silly talk about shutting poinsettias in a dark closet if you want them to bloom. But there’s no need for that. All you have to do is expose them to November.
It’s all about day length, or more accurately, the length of night. Since flowering can be a stressful thing, many plants from hotter climates – like poinsettias – wait for the cooler seasons of the year to start blooming. In the warm temperate and subtropical parts of the world, a slight shift to days less than 12 hours long is the only signal plants need to recognize that cooler days are coming. That shift occurred the first of October here on the Gulf, and the poinsettias have been laying on buds ever since, getting ready for November.
That’s why folks in upstate Alabama say “what?” when you mention mirliton. This Caribbean vine produces its pear-like vegetable fruits only during the short days of the year, starting the last week in September. The first fruits freeze before they develop in Birmingham. On the Gulf Coast, they ripen by the hundreds in November.
Just remember, the plants of November respond to the darkness as much as they respond to the light. Street lights and porch lights left on during the night will mean that nearby flowering plants and fruits may never get the signal that November is coming, and they’ll be as naked of flowers and fruits as they were in summer. When Christmas cactus and night-blooming cereus struggle to bloom, it’s often because they’re inside the house, not exposed to the declining light and cool swings of autumn. Put them out on the porch, and turn off the light. They’ll get the message.
One should wonder what this lagniappe of November means for our Thanksgiving. Don’t you find it strange that so many here treat the holiday as if we all lived in the dark and greenless late fall of New England?
I don’t know about yours, but mine will be a special feast. I believe I eat better this month than any other time of year. I don’t mean the Minnesota turkeys and cardboard box stuffing so much of the country is forced to eat. I mean the seasonal freshness rolling off the Gulf: the first fine oysters of the year and the last fat white shrimp, winter greens with flower-scented peppers, lettuce and pink-eyed peas, Seminole pumpkins, persimmons, satsumas, mirlitons. That’s the way to give thanks for a Gulf Coast November.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Bloom of the Month
Sasanqua camellias put on their best show in November, and the camellia hybrids that bloom before Christmas are often the cleanest, longest lasting blooms of the year. Take advantage of long-blooming Gulf Coast varieties like Gulf Glory or Fairhope’s own Yuletide Cheer, a much-improved version of an old favorite.
Signs of the Season
The cool tides of November make oysters salty and tasty. Fall color started with the black gums, but by the end of November, the hills and swamps will be blazing with the red of oaks and the golds of hickory as south Alabama leaf color hits its peak.
There’s no better time for planting shrubs, trees, lawns and perennials. Days are getting short, so don’t expect fast growth from seedlings. But this is a good time to sow plants you want to bloom or harvest next spring, including garlic bulbs, perennial onions, daffodils and other narcissus, poppies, hollyhocks, sweet peas and foxgloves. Don’t worry – they’ll grow right through the winter and jump like jackrabbits in spring.
Ripe for Picking
If you planted right back in September, you should have broccoli, lettuce and a bunch of winter greens to pick for Thanksgiving. The earliest satsumas, such as Armstrong, may be ready by the first of the month; the best, Owari and Brown Select, won’t be really ripe until Thanksgiving. Don’t trust the color: It’s not a good sign of ripe fruit. Taste it, and you’ll know.
Green Thumb Event
November 8 – 24: Cascading Mum Display
Mums in fall colors of red, yellow, bronze, orange and white arranged in breathtaking displays throughout the gardens.
Bellingrath Gardens and Home • 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore. 973-2217.
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