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Nan K. Chase

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Garden Notebook: Tending Azaleas

Azaleas in full bloom are the beauty queens of spring. Their gorgeous curves, adorned in pastel lace, are the belles of Atlanta neighborhoods.

But past their blooming prime, azaleas are like pageant floats after a thunderstorm: washed out, bedraggled, and ready for maintenance before next year’s event. Neglect them, and overgrown shrubs morph into shapeless mounds. Pruned into symmetrical squares and pompoms, they look like boxwood wannabes. “My personal favorite is the upside-down gumball-shaped shearing with a flat top,” muses Jamie Blackburn, curator of Woodland Gardens for the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Fortunately, keeping azaleas healthy and lush isn’t difficult, which is why experts sometimes call them the “lazy gardener’s dream plant.” Acid soil–loving azaleas have shallow roots that lie almost aboveground. Here are some tips on their care:

Mulch, mulch, mulch. Keep two to three inches of old leaf mold or decayed pine needles at the base. Shredded pine bark or pine nuggets also work well.

Go light on fertilizer. Skip fertilizer the first year, then apply acid-plant fertilizer sparingly every year or so in growing season.

Dappled shade is ideal. Both harsh sun and dense shade can damage buds.

Not near the house. Foundations can leach compounds harmful to azaleas.

Prune after bloom. Prune new growth lightly as soon as blooms fade. Prune too late, and you’ll cut off next year’s buds.

Go with the flow. Thin old wood first, beginning with lower branches, and follow the natural flowing shape. Don’t snip straight across.

Shallow roots make azaleas easy to move. 
If yours are ailing, try another location.

Where to see them
Atlanta Botanical Garden, atlantabotanicalgarden.org

The Frank A. Smith Rhododendron Garden at the Atlanta History Center, atlantahistorycenter.com

Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, callawaygardens.com

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

Apalachicola, FL

Dawn came so softly that I could hear a dolphin breathing, exhaling through its blowhole while swimming slowly up the Apalachicola River only a few feet away. I had just settled onto a porch chair with my coffee at the elegant Water Street Hotel & Marina, as sunrise painted the watery landscape before me: the channel deep blue, the islands of tall grass beyond it the color of wheat, the sky streaked pink and orange.

Then, with the sun above the horizon, the whole scene burst into life. A cormorant, its iridescent dark feathers painted red-gold by the sun’s rays, surfaced from its dive with a little fish snug in its beak. A majestic osprey flew past so close to my second-story balcony that I could read the few brown spots on its snowy breast; a moment later it flew by in the opposite direction, now with a fish clasped in its talons, on its way back to a car-sized nest high up across the delta.

White herons, blue herons, green herons. Eagles and owls. Plus river otters, raccoons, bobcat, deer, and alligators, all inhabiting more than a half million acres of public wilderness—Apalachicola National Forest—so close by. During our latest trip to the remote Florida Panhandle oyster port of Apalachicola, my husband and I felt like spectators at nature’s pageant. Last fall, it had been just eighteen months since the infamous BP oil spill, but we saw no trace of ecological damage.

The historic town of Apalachicola is Florida unplugged and unglitzy, still a working port that supplies 90 percent of the state’s oyster harvest, plus shrimp, grouper, snapper, even jellyfish for Asian markets. The bounty of its waterways, where freshwater meets salt, makes the area fascinating to explore by boat. Franklin County boasts nearly twenty marinas and some fifty registered guides (inns are happy to make recommendations). Tours range from kayaking and pontoon rides up the jungle-lined Apalachicola River to oystering excursions in shallow Apalachicola Bay. Fishing options include inshore saltwater, freshwater, offshore saltwater, and surf fishing. Summer tarpon charters sometimes sell out a year in advance.

A chain of barrier islands shelters the bay from the nearby Gulf. At public parks such as St. George Island State Park, Alligator Harbor Aquatic Preserve, and Dog Island, the powdery white sand is brilliant and the surf wild. Rare flora like dwarf cypress trees and native pitcher plants, plus endangered fauna like black bears and manatees—reportedly the greatest biodiversity in the nation—draw hikers and ecotourists.

After trying other options, Saul and I now stay at Water Street, just four blocks from town along the tidal marsh. These apartments are large and luxurious, with full kitchens and screened balconies for taking in the superb river view. We love to rent bikes from the hotel and cycle around the historic district, stopping to sample oysters or admire the hundreds of nineteenth-century houses surrounded by moss-draped live oaks.

Mainly we like to eat. Apalachicola Bay is the only place in the country where wild oysters are still harvested by hand with tongs. A favorite haunt of ours, Boss Oyster, sends its own oyster boat out daily and offers the catch in dozens of configurations. Next door, Caroline’s River Dining serves up great riverside views along with middle-brow gourmet fare like soft-shell crabs Benedict on fluffy homemade biscuits. Best of all may be Up The Creek Raw Bar, walking distance from downtown like everything else in Apalachicola. It’s a jolly barn of a restaurant with a skillful locavore chef and two outdoor decks perched over the wide river—the perfect place to be when the sun goes down.

Photograph courtesy of Apalachicola Bay Chamber

Garden Notebook: Airport

Abra Lee can only wish people would tiptoe through the tulips—instead of crushing them with suitcases, rooting among them to stash liquor bottles, and driving tractor trailers over whole beds of them. As landscape manager at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the relentlessly upbeat Lee sees to it that hundreds of acres of decorative gardens and greensward look fresh, interesting, and welcoming year-round for the 88 million passengers coming through annually—some 240,000 a day.
 
A fifth-generation Atlantan, Lee sees creative challenges where others might see adversity. And as a city employee overseeing a twenty-person staff, she accomplishes much on a municipal budget well below $1 million. “There is always something new,” she says. “A season change, a new plant, a new idea, a new gardener to talk to—there is always that next thing to do in the garden. It never ends, and it is always rewarding.”
Now in her fourth year on the job, the thirty-two-year-old Auburn University graduate relies on nonstop research and networking. With responsibility for the airport’s perimeter green­space and for beds and planters, she seeks out plants as hardy as they are handsome, such as camellias, creeping jenny, and ‘Becky’ daisies. And she tells them right away who’s boss.
 
“I have a pep talk with our plants when they come off the truck, and let them know that if they want to make it out here, they have to be tough or get tough,” Lee admits. “Most of them listen.
“We don’t babysit anything. We are definitely willing to meet the initial basic needs of each plant. We will plant the right plant in the right place and care for it per guidelines. However, if it starts to get fussy and too demanding or aggressive, it’s off to the compost pile.”
Under Lee’s guidance, the landscape plan is transitioning from annuals toward more bulbs, perennials, and shrubs with notable blooms or unusual foliage. She loves Japanese maples and, for 2011, topiaries, since they look attractive even in dim, nighttime lighting.
“No one is reinventing the wheel. We just try to create a memorable look for people to enjoy.”
 
TIPS
 
> “If a plant dies, plant a new plant. There are trillions of plants in the universe. One will work for you.”

> Make friends with older gardeners. “My mom, my Aunt Nita, my Aunt Lois—[they] run circles around me as a gardener. Senior gardeners will simplify everything for you and give you the best planting and design advice. Period.”

> Learn to compost on the spot and save on bagging and trips to the dump. Break trimmed limbs into small pieces and hide them behind hedges. Pull up weeds and tuck them under nearby mulch. “All of that is organic and will break down and feed the soil.”

> Go for yard art. “If you are a serial plant killer, get texture and color by buying colored pots or buying little statues from the thrift store. Gardening is more than just the plants.”

> Easy to love, hard to kill, and good-looking for summer planting: succulent plants, Southern shield ferns (they like full sun), dragon wing begonias, and caladium bulbs.

> Showcase something new in the garden during each of Atlanta’s four seasons. Aim for pale shades in spring, “color chaos” in summer, earth-tone blooms in fall, texture and greenery in winter.

 
This article originally appeared in our April 2011 issue.

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