May ABODE: Garden green


(File photo)

The grocery store tomatoes I bought during the last heat wave have been languishing in their pots as we wait for night temperatures to settle dependably into the 50s. No matter how hot it gets during the day, tomatoes will not prosper in cold soil at night. I knew this when I bought them, but I just couldn’t help it.

I know I’m not the only one who succumbed to the lure of leafy green vines on hot asphalt back in early April, but one of my excuses is that they happened to be my favorite hybrids. Every time I haven’t grown these I regret it. Celebrity, Early Girl and Better Boy give a dependable trio of bush type, early producer and nice red slicer, respectively. They’ve been potted up from 4" pots to 1 gallon containers, lower leaves stripped, planted deep, and dragged in and out for the last three weeks. They go into the ground first week of May.

Years ago mid-May was the rule of thumb for tomatoes, so planting time has definitely moved up. I have room for six plants this year with the new vegetable path grid, so in addition I’m looking for an heirloom that offers old-fashioned taste, colors and striping; a yellow slicer; and a cherry type. I’m hoping to find the vaunted Sun Gold, an old reliable orange cherry known for strong flavor and constant yield as it vines indeterminately through summer. Ripe Sun Golds tend to split, so they’re hard to market even for local growers, and the best bet is to grow them yourself.


Carolina Jessamine (Gelsimium

Chinese Fringe-flower (Lorolpetalum chinense)—purple leaf evergreen shrub

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia species and hybrids)—trees and shrubs

Japanese Camellia (C. japonica)
Lantana—butterfly-attracting annual

Yellow Star-Jasmine
(Trachelospermum asiaticum)—vine


Cutleaf Lilac (Syringa laciniata)—
one of the best for heat, often seen
in Georgia

Littleleaf Lilac (S. microphylla
‘Superba’)—strong recurring bloom in late summer

Miss Kim (S. patula ‘Miss Kim’)—3’x3′ compact habit

Warmer temperatures favor earlier tomatoes and other heat-loving plants (see Gardener’s Crib Sheet), but if current trends continue, some plants will decline with milder winters and one of our biggest losses may be the lilacs. Charlottesville has some great old stands of Syringa vulgaris at the University and Morven, as well as private estates and little homesteads throughout the counties.

As far back as 1998 the great horticulturist Mike Dirr noted that, cold hardy to Zone 4 (-30° F), the lilac “is not prosperous, lacks vigor and does not flower reliably from year to year” in Zones 7 (that’s us: 0-10° F) and 8 (10-20° F). Reports from local gardeners confirm our experience here south of town—much reduced in size and number of blossoms.

I religiously dead-head my lilacs to keep seeds from draining flower bud set and apply wood ashes to sweeten the soil, but, alas, out here poor old Miss Wilmot nods feebly with a topknot of sparse white plumes at Mr. Lincoln across the way with nary a blue bud. I love my lilacs but they are fading. Our spring gardens may evolve away from the iconic New England dooryard shrub to the more exotic camellias that decorate Charleston. Other species are heat resistant, but none have the color and classic scent of the common lilac.

Things are definitely getting warmer around here and early tomatoes and sparse lilacs may be just the beginning. Let’s see what happens this summer with the okra that slaves brought from Africa.—Cathy Clary

Cathy Clary is a gardening teacher and consultant; she tends ornamental beds and a kitchen and cutting garden at home in a hollow south of Charlottesville. Read more about her at, and e-mail her with questions at