Updated: May 30, 2019
WRITTEN BY RACHEL A. ISHEE | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
When your garden is sweltering and blooms begin to droop, heat-loving caladiums add a welcome burst of color to shady areas. New Albany Master Gardener Sherra Owen shares her tips for growing and a glimpse into her garden.
Angel wings and elephant ears are not the first things that come to mind when picturing a summer garden, but that’s exactly what fills Sherra Owen’s New Albany property. Known for their distinctly heart-shaped appearance, caladiums are a tropical plant that rarely flower but have leaves that come in a variety of colors.
Owen is a native plant educator and has been gardening for decades. Her garden is expansive and changes with the seasons so that there is always something blooming no matter when she has visitors show up at her door. From shaded patio seating and well-worn lawn chairs to a peaceful pond and hammock, her property features a little something for everyone to enjoy. Owen considers her garden to be a “people place,” and she works hard year-round to ensure that it is inviting.
“I work to enhance the five senses,” Owen said. “I try to have something that smells good, something that you can taste and of course something that looks good.”
Owen’s garden showcases about 300 caladium plants, and she adds more each year. Her interest in the plant started when she realized that she wanted her garden to yield more color during the summer months.
Owen has three different types of caladiums that are displayed throughout her garden, separated by color. These tropical perennials flourish in the summer months, adding eye-catching splashes of white, red and pink wherever they are planted. All of Owen’s white caladiums are displayed in a large bed that is roughly the size of a small house, and her red and pink caladiums are also displayed in their own manicured beds.
According to Owen, practically anyone can have beautiful caladiums in their own garden. The key is to buy big bulbs at the start of the season. Owen recommends going to your local nursery, but she said that bulbs can be found in pretty much any gardening store during the spring and summer. She frequents Philips Garden Center and Midsouth Nursery in Tupelo for her bulbs; or she purchases them online.
Caladiums thrive in the heat. Plant in June, when the soil is above 60 degrees. If you plant before Mother’s Day tender bulbs may fall victim to a late season temperature drop. And plant them in the shade; caladiums don’t like too much direct sunlight.
“A lot of people make the mistake of planting them too soon, but it is a tropical flower and it will rot if planted when the ground is still too cold,” Owen said.
Owen believes in taking care of the soil, and uses only organic products in her garden.
“Regular fertilizer produces salts that build up in your soil, and things don’t like to grow in salt,” Owen said. “So, eventually it will harm your soil. Sprays kill the pollinators, and the pollinators are why we have anything.”
Owen suggests using natural organic bone meal, along with a mixture of leaf compost and soil.
“You hear the word ‘sustainability’ — that goes along with being organic,” Owen said. “So we’re eventually saving ourselves by saving our soils.”
Owen recommends planting caladium bulbs about three at time in pots, so that they last longer into September and don’t have to compete with the roots of other plants. Once she displays the pots out in her garden, they blend in with other foliage, so visitors can’t even tell that the caladiums are actually in pots instead of being in the ground.
As the temperatures slowly start to drop in September and the leaves start to fade, Owen collects all of her pots and pulls the bulbs out with the foliage still attached. After that she sorts them by color and leaves them out to dry. Once the plants have dried, Owen pulls off the foliage and stores the bulbs in mesh bags, making sure that the temperature stays above 60 degrees throughout the year. This allows her to save and use her bulbs year after year, while adding an additional 50 to 100 bulbs each season.
Owen suggests caladiums to anyone who is looking to add a bit of color and diversity to their summer garden. Because they are relatively simple to grow and can be brought back year after year, they are a great option for the novice gardener as well as the expert.
“I really enjoy caladiums so much because they have a long color time,” Owen said. “They give off bright, strong color in the shade, which is hard to find in a plant.”
Check out the full gallery here: