10 plants I must have in my Southern Garden

As I am starting to read Uprooted, a book written by a woman who left her garden of 34 years and moved to another state to start a new garden, friends and I recently discussed the benefits of downsizing our homes and starting smaller gardens.

Goodnight Moon Iris by Connie Cottingham

Goodnight Moon Iris

My thoughts wandered to “If I started a garden from scratch, what plants would have to be included? What are my top ten must-have plants to bring into a new garden?” That’s an interesting, fun exercise.

Here are my answers – what would be yours?

Passalong Bulbs
Passalong plants are easy to grow, easy to propagate plants that are true performers. There is a great book with this name by Felder Rushing and Steve Bender, describing the virtues of several passalong plants in the South. Included in those plants are many bulbs. My  ‘Uncle John Iris’ (actually a very common antique burgundy iris that grew in my father’s uncle’s garden) and my mother’s variegated iris would have to move. I also must have my favorite iris – ‘Goodnight Moon’Spider lilies and Johnson lilies, daffodils, crocus…  And rain lilies – I could not have a garden without rain lilies. A few of the Spanish bluebells that bloom each year on Darwin the beagle’s grave must move too.  I have to put all the bulbs together on this list or I will get to ten before I really get started.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
Our native Oakleaf Hydrangea is regal, architectural and bold. She puts on a show in every season. In winter, she has peeling bark on bare branches. New foliage emerges in spring and grows into huge oak-shaped leaves. The large bloom clusters are white, then red, then brown and the fall color is a gorgeous russet.

Native Azaleas
Azaleas are beautiful, but our native azaleas are delicate and tall. The natural, airy form is perfect in a woodland garden. Georgia has about a dozen species of native azaleas, and breeders are creating lovely varieties.

Native Fringe Tree,  Grancy Graybeard (Chionanthus virginicus)
This small native tree has creamy-white blooms that sway in the breeze before the spring foliage emerges, which is enough to rank high on my list. But wait, there’s more:  golden fall color, deer resistance, and incredible drought resistance (once established).

Japanese Sedge

Japanese Sedge (Carex oshimensis Evercolor ‘Everillo’)
This foot-high, chartreuse clump of grass-like foliage in my shade garden is ready to divide into a half-dozen plants. This plant brightens my shade garden and accents a small statue. I can only imagine the impact a half-dozen plants will make.

Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica)
Bright red buds open to vivid yellow/red flowers on this deep green, 12-18″ high shade-loving, native perennial.

Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.)
Spring blooms, fresh fruit, and red fall color on a native plant that is a host to spring azures, brown elfins, striped hairstreaks, and several moths. Best to have three plants for cross-pollination.

Oh – I do love these heat, deer, and drought-resistant fall bloomers!

Crimson Candles Camellia (Camellia x ‘Crimson Candles’)
This camellia stands above the rest in my mind, which is why there are 3-4 in our garden now. The branches are absolutely covered in pink blooms that stand out against the evergreen fall foliage around Feb./March. Ours are about 8’ tall and about 4’ wide. It is recommended as a screening hedge.

Gingko (Gingko biloba)
For many sentimental reasons, I would always want a Gingko tree in my garden.

It surprised and pleased me that over half of my choices are native plants.

What else could I not live without? My outside tables, where I can write, paint or dine and use an eclectic collection of thrift shop tableclothes. Outside living spaces add so much to a home.

Tula Hats by Connie Cottingham

Tula hats hang by my back door.

A hammock (although posts may have to support it while the trees grow), the potting bench my father built me several decades ago, my collection of Tula hats, my Felco pruners, my Zero-R hoses, a rain gauge, my gardening library… and lots and lots of bird feeders.

I’d love to hear about something that you could not imagine leaving out of your garden.


The first day in NW Arkansas was perfect – sunny and 60 degrees, so my 8 year old nephew John Michael and I planted bags of bulbs and a flat of violas in Mom’s garden. It was fun looking at the bulbs and analyzing where the leaves and roots will come out and looking at how the blooms change colors with age on the little blue and white violas. John Michael is a born scientist with a queasy stomach – I don’t think he could be a botanist if he has to go through Biology labs and dissections. Great potential in engineering…

Then Dad took me to his greenhouse filled with blooming orchids and we found a spot for the snapdragons I was afraid would not survive the coming temps in the teens. John Michael promised to plant them later. Dad showed me the new deer fence around 8 raised veggie beds behind the greenhouse. “I’ll probably plant berries in two of the beds because I don’t need more than 6 for vegetables.” Dad devours gardening magazines and seed catalogs coming in the mail. He also turns 93 in March. Oh Lord, give me some of those genes!

The violas have been under a layer of snow and the tulips, hyacinths and crocus are under snow, mulch and soil, but all have promising, colorful futures.

Do these Felcos make my hips look big?