The Accidental Gardener: Flowers that you’ll fall for

Brighten up your garden in cooler weather with hydrangeas and camellias.

I have a confession to make. When I got married and moved up north, folks around me would become giddy at the thought of autumn hayrides replete with apples, pumpkins, and scarecrows. I tried desperately to embrace their enthusiasm, but truth be told, I learned to absolutely hate the fall because it foretold the cold, dark winter to follow. I even developed an aversion to orange, yellow and red. The colors of pumpkins and mums haunted my dreams.

Eventually, and luckily for the sake of our marriage, my husband grudgingly agreed to relocate back to the Lowcountry when he retired (bless his heart) – after all, I’d more than taken one for the team enduring decades of bone-chilling cold (bless my heart).

During our first year back, I felt this increasing dread as autumn approached. My mother said it was post-traumatic stress brought on by marrying a Yankee and living with years of ice and snow (bless her heart). Then it dawned on me: Fall is the best time to plant some of the prettiest flowers and plants! I mean plants and flowers that are fabulous and worth falling for — sensational snapdragons, captivating cyclamen, vital violas and valiant violets – oh my! This is also the perfect time to plant hydrangeas and camellias!


These flowering plants prefer morning sun and regular watering. This is the one section of my garden where I use drip irrigation because they really don’t like to have wet leaves. And while they are not drought tolerant, they will quickly rot and die in standing water, so good drainage is a must. Also, do not mulch close to their stems. Various sources say there are 23 species of hydrangea; others claim there are 49, and still others say there are as many as 80. Regardless of however many there are, only six types are commonly grown in American gardens.

• Big leaf: Newer varieties bloom on old and new growth, and older cultivars bloom on old wood. Generally, needs little pruning, just tidying up. Remove dead wood as spring growth begins, being careful of flower buds. There are two flower types: Mophead and lacecap. It is also available in a variegated form.
• Smooth: Blooms on new growth. Prune close to the ground every other year in late winter to keep neat and encourage new growth.
• Panicle: Blooms on new growth. Cone-shaped flower heads. Prune as needed in late winter/early spring, promotes larger flower clusters. Very often seen in tree form (standards).
• Oakleaf: Blooms on old wood. Prune after flowering as needed, cut back winter-damaged stems in early spring.
• Mountain: Blooms on old wood. Similar to lacecap varieties, but more compact, with smaller flowers and leaves. Prune after flowering as needed, cut back winter-damaged stems in early spring.
• Climbing: These beautiful hydrangeas do best in zones 5-7. Sorry!


Rich in history, often referred to as winter’s rose lighting up the landscape from November to March, these flowering plants were brought to the Lowcountry in 1786 through Charleston by a Frenchman named André Michaux and presented to his friend Arthur Middleton, (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), whose plantation, Middleton Place, sits just 15 miles northwest of Charleston.

The common camellia is native to Japan and closely related to the tea plant. There are numerous species of camellia (sources range from 250 to over 300) but the two camellia types commonly grown as landscape shrubs are Camellia sasanqua, Camellia japonica, and hybrids of these.

Camellias have shallow roots and need moderate water. Overwatering can lead to leaf and bud drop. They don’t need heavy fertilizing but they’re acid-loving, so use a fertilizer formulated for azaleas or camellias.

Never ever, ever take an electric hedger to your camelias! Pruning is the biggest cause of their demise. Just do a light shaping, or cut the blooms for arrangements and know when to prune. If you prune in summer, you won’t have any flowers next year, so prune after the blooms finish.

So be very careful when selecting a camellia – select one that will grow at maturity to the height you desire – don’t try to prune a taller variety to the size you desire.  Camellias make excellent container plants, but they need large containers and do especially well in terra cotta containers. With the right selections you can have blooms from October to April. Happy planting!

• Sasanquas: These camellias bloom in the fall, while Japonicas bloom in the spring. I have found that the easiest way to identify them is Sasanquas have smaller leaves and the flowers “shatter” when cut.
• Japonicas have larger leaves and the flowers are often cut and floated in water as a center piece in crystal bowls. These plants do best in light shade (No hot afternoon summer sun) and well-drained soil. Importantly, don’t plant your camellias too deep in the ground – it’s better to plant a little bit high and keep the top of the root ball level with the soil.

Ask & Answer

Dear Accidental Gardener,
I have a large arbor in a shady area that I would like to have covered with a flowering vine. Everything I’ve tried has died. What can you recommend? — Vexed in Wexford

Dear Vexed,
I’m not sure why all of your vines have died – did you remember to water them? Three good choices that I can recommend are in no order of preference: 1. Bleeding heart (Clerodendrum thomsoniae) in white or tri-color red, purple and white flower spring through summer and will want some filtered sun. Semi-evergreen prefers a warmer climate but have found it returns with our mild winters.
2. Sky flower vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) is a very vigorous grower with large blue flowers in the spring and fall. Evergreen in mild winters. 3. Sausage vine (Holboellia coriacea) with clusters of white flowers that smell better than orange blossoms in late winter to early spring. Probably won’t find these locally until next spring unless you go online to purchase. Hope one of these works for you!

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