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Gardening: Life lessons from a garden


Stock is a very cold-hardy winter annual. They don't like to be pot bound and need a good dose of fertilizer when planted. Anthony Keinath/provided

“Sustainable gardens create opportunities for people to interact with nature and improve their physical, psychological, and social well-being.” — Gayla McCluskey

Gardeners, like me, who focus intently on the plants may need occasional reminders of the lessons a garden can teach us.


Today, garden centers large and small offer vegetables ready to transplant and annuals already in bloom, perfect for impatient or procrastinating gardeners. However, even with the convenience of plants weeks ahead of their normal schedule, successful gardening in the Lowcountry requires patience.

Paying attention to the seasons is crucial, especially in the southeastern coastal plain, where spring can start earlier or later than the calendar says it should.

Vinca (Cathranthus roseus) loves summer and stock (Matthiola incanata) adores winter, so don’t plant vinca too early in the year, and don’t prolong stock’s growing season once the temperature rises.


'Ceylon' is a large-cupped daffodil that is suited to the coastal plain climate, provided it is planted in well drained soil. Anthony Keinath/provided

Heat determines everything that happens in a garden. Eggplant, okra and watermelon crave heat, while parsley, spinach and English pea detest it. Both warm-season and cool-season vegetables grow best, yield the most and reach the highest quality when they are grown during their optimal temperatures.

“Optimal” temperature for a plant doesn’t always mean the warmest temperature. Tomato, pepper, cucumber and cantaloupe won’t set fruit when night temperatures reach 75 degrees. Finding the right planting time for these frost-sensitive vegetables that prefer warm, but not hot, growing conditions will ensure the greatest fruit set.

For recommended planting dates, see Planning a Garden at


Nothing expresses the hope of the gardener like planting bulbs. Are they planted deeply enough but not too deep?

Will the plants that emerge get enough sun under a deciduous tree after its leaves emerge?

During summer, will the dormant bulb get enough water to prevent drying out but not so much water that it rots?

Despite conditions that might not be quite right, bulbs are practically guaranteed to produce leaves. Hope is expecting a flower to follow.

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Monarch butterfly caterpillars "hang out" on the undersides of blood flower milkweed plants (Asclepias curassavica). Anthony Keinath/provided

Native plants are valuable food sources for bees, moths and butterflies. These pollinators depend on specific plants that grow naturally in their environments. Their food sources cannot be replaced with bird feeders filled with seeds, grains or sugar water (for hummingbirds).

Growing plants for pollinators is charitable gardening.

Many lists of plants preferred by pollinators are available. See Pollinator Gardening at or Pollinator Habitat at the South Carolina Wildlife Federation (

Gardeners should be sure to consult lists for their region to be sure that the plants will persist and thrive with minimal inputs of time, money, water and fertilizer.


“Does it spark joy?” is a popular mantra for decluttering living spaces. Gardeners can use the same question when it’s time to take stock of which plants should remain and which, if any, should be replaced next year.

In my garden, the answer to “Does this plant spark joy?” is as simple as “Does it bloom?” (Ferns and other filler plants that can’t bloom are naturally exempt from this questioning.)


Scarlet passionflower has brilliant red flowers with white pistils (female parts) and yellow stamens (male parts). Anthony Keinath/provided

New plants bring joy. When my mother passed, coworkers gave me a large potted scarlet passionflower (Passiflora coccinea). On my own, I would have bypassed this tropical plant, assuming it wasn’t worth the bother of hauling it in and out of the garage during spells of frost. I was so wrong and will write more about it next year.

A garden always offers something unexpected that brings joy.

This fall, lemon tree caterpillars appeared on my lemon tree for the first time in the 27 years I’ve had it. Four of them formed camouflaged chrysalises attached to branches. I promise to write more next year if they hatch into giant swallowtail butterflies (Papilio cresphontes Cramer).

In this holiday season, I wish all gardeners, and especially my readers, patience, hope, charity and joy in and from their gardens in the New Year.

Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at

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