Cathy Adams admits she was not born with a trowel in her hand. Planting a flat of impatiens each spring was once the extent of her horticultural prowess. But in 1997 that changed. Wooed by a vine-covered Tudor home perched high on a ridge that overlooks the Birmingham city skyline, Cathy and her husband, Tom, fell hard. It's a good thing that love conquers all, as "every invasive plant in the state of Alabama called these once-formal gardens home," she declares. As Cathy cleared brush by the truckloads, magic began to happen. Old perennials appeared where the sun warmed the bare soil. "I fell in love with the legacy left by the women who had gardened here before me," she says. Today's garden is a celebration of those women and Cathy's favorite season—fall. Her go-to plants are easy-care roses, heat-tolerant sages, and showy swamp sunflowers. "My hope is that years from now, some of the flowers I have planted will make yet another woman happy," says Cathy, "inspiring her to garden too."
The Big Idea: Cut back your annuals and perennials in July. You'll be rewarded in September. Following the advice of her gardening mentor, Louise Wrinkle, Cathy cuts back swamp sunflowers to 3 feet tall and often reduces sages and impatiens by half each year around the Fourth of July. This creates a compact plant that is less likely to topple over or split in high winds.
Takeaway Tip: For small gardens, choose compact selections of the plants you desire. Cathy uses 'Santa Barbara' Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha 'Santa Barbara') for this reason.
The Big Idea: Garden wisely; you'll reduce maintenance. "I admit that I'm lazy," confesses Cathy, who loves the charm window boxes offer but hates watering. Make life easier by selecting carefree plants such as begonia, lantana, sweet potato vine, and geranium.
Takeaway Tip: Choose items that work double duty. To fertilize the garden each spring and fall, Cathy mulches with truckloads of compost from Alabama's own Captain Compost (captaincompostalabama.com) and adds in cow manure. This improves the soil, reduces weeds, and helps retain moisture. To give her roses an extra boost, she feeds with Bayer Advanced All-In-One Rose & Flower Care once a month from spring through fall.
The Big Idea: Embrace a theme or season. When Jason Powell, owner of Petals from the Past in Jemison, Alabama, started working with Cathy, their goal was to create an English cottage garden that would attract butterflies. "He'd draw an organized plan; then I'd manage to junk it up with my additions," Cathy says, laughing. She learned through much trial and error, so don't be afraid to experiment. "That's how I discovered I love fall," she says. "The colors are vivid, the days are cooler, and the bugs have retreated."
Takeaway Tip: Attract butterflies with 'Double Knock Out' roses, 'Hot Lips' and 'Indigo Spires' sages, and lantanas. The best lure for butterflies is porterweed in either coral or purple. Find it at your local nursery, or order from petalsfromthepast.com.