A blooming minute

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

9/23/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Take advantage of climate, base resources when gardening

With Alabama's mild climate, autumn is an ideal time to watch your garden grow.

"You can grow things 11 months of the year," said Jane McCarthy, base horticulturalist. The toughest month in Alabama is August, due to high temps and humidity.

McCarthy operates the base greenhouses, which provide plants around Maxwell. She enjoys teaching garden and yard design, installation, maintenance and recycling.

"This job is fascinating because it has all those aspects of horticulture rolled into one," she said. "I'm extremely lucky to be able to do this."

McCarthy offers tours of the greenhouses and nurseries to children and adults.

Her thumb is so green she grows plants to give away, too. Plants are available to anyone with installation access.

Produce grown is donated to Faith Rescue Mission kitchen.

McCarthy encourages students, especially those here for yearlong Air Command and Staff College and Air War College courses, to visit the greenhouse for assistance. She can provide them with vegetables, gardens and potted plants that thrive in Alabama.

At the end of the course, these plants can be returned to the greenhouse for next year's students.

One of the keys to her success is a commitment to recycling, which saves money and provides a continuous source of materials.

McCarthy is a strong believer in reusing compost, plants and pots. She said almost anything can be turned into a pot, including basketballs and cowboy boots.

"We recycle a lot of seeds," she said, including watermelon, squash, cantaloupe and cucumber.

Many of the trees and shrubs grown today at the greenhouse are "rescued" from construction around base and will be replanted as needed. Others are donated from people at Maxwell or by the National Tree Trust. Some are grown from acorns found around base.

"I've tried to install drought-tolerant, pest-resistant plants for easier maintenance," she said.

For information, visit McCarthy at the greenhouse on River Road at Maxwell or visit the Alabama Cooperative Extension System website at www.aces.edu.

Growing a variety of plants in a container is a simple way to combine colors and textures in an easy-to-maintain environment. McCarthy suggests combining lettuce, mustard, pansies, violas or parsley.

Herbs also do well in containers, especially rosemary, mint and basil.

McCarthy recommends putting a basil cutting in water until it starts to grow roots. "Then it can be planted and put on your sunniest windowsill," she said. "You'll be pleased with the result."

Since soil in Alabama is dense, it is not ideal for rosemary, which grows best in soil that drains well, McCarthy said.

Mint can be aggressive and may take over a garden. McCarthy recommends growing it in a container to control the spread.

McCarthy said the best time to trim shrubs and trees is late February, early March, right before they start to bloom and grow.

The one exception is camellias, which bloom in the winter, starting in November. They can be pruned after they bloom.
McCarthy also recommends waiting until November to plant camellias in the ground, though those purchased today can remain in pots until planting.

Now is a great time for cold crops, including cabbage and broccoli. They can grow in gardens or in containers. "You can grow all kinds of lettuces, a great winter crop," McCarthy said.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, or ACES, said lettuce grows best when the day temperatures are 55-65 degrees, and night temps are 50-55 degrees.

ACES also said September and October are prime months for planting onions, radishes and spinach.

Mulch and pine straw are plentiful in the area and help maintain moisture and temperature around the plants during winter, McCarthy said.

An easy recipe for mulch is to run a lawn mower over fallen leaves, she said. The small pieces will deteriorate faster than full leaves, providing essential nutrients to plants all winter long.

The best thing to do now is basic clean up, including clipping dead flowers and branches, McCarthy said. "Then you sit back and wait."

She discourages fertilizing now, since it will stimulate growth in the cold months and damage the plant.


McCarthy has several plants in her nursery many would not expect in Alabama, including pomegranates, bananas and pineapples.