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.

Coreopsis – and bringing new plants into my garden

Leading Lady Coreopsis, conniecottingham.comThese beauties are both from the Leading Lady™ Series of Coreopsis. ‘Iron Lady’ opens up almost completely burgundy, with more white showing on the petals as the flower ages. ‘Sophia’ is a bright, happy yellow.

The Coreopsis genus includes 100 species and a bazillion varieties, many of which have at least two species in the parentage. I cannot claim these are fantastic plants for your garden, because this is the first time they have bloomed for me. The many plants in Mt. Cuba’s Coreopsis trials range from a 4.7 to a 1.2 out of 5 and do not include any of the Leading Ladies. The Leading Lady™ Series does claim to bloom June through September and be heat and humidity resistant plants that are about two feet high. I have seen them listed online (and the Internet never lies, you know) as Coreopsis grandiflora on one site and Coreopsis auriculata on another site (both native to the Southeastern U.S.), although most sources do not attribute this series to one species.

So what is so great about these two leading ladies: ‘Iron Lady’ and ‘Sophia’?

They are beautiful here and now. For the price of a Starbucks coffee, I added these showoffs in my garden last spring because I haven’t grown Coreopsis in years. Now they are inspiring me to pull out art supplies, filling a little vase (I’m about to find out how they do as a cut flower), and feeding insects. They quietly grew for a year before this show-stopping bloom. Will they do this again next year? Coreopsis are known to be short-lived perennials so maybe for another year or so. A colony of native species of Coreopsis often reseed.

But if I only have now that is fine. Every year I gamble on a few new plants and when they pay off they are a thrilling surprise. When they truly prove themselves, they are invited back into the garden or related species and hybrids are brought in to try too (hence the many Salvias, Hostas, Hydrangeas, Ajugas and Viburnums in my garden).

Other plants that have proven their worth:

Cleome Señorita Rosalita® and Señorita Blanca® – During the worst summer drought, when the hoses only went to the most cherished plants, these two annuals never stopped blooming while all the other plants in that bed died. I now become a salesperson when I see them in a nursery, convincing anyone who will listen they MUST have these plants.

Epimediums – Deer, drought, deep shade… bring it on. The easiest to find in this area is ‘Pink Champagne’, a sturdy perennial with delicate early, early spring blooms.

Fanflower – All the annual hanging baskets look good in May. This one also looks good in August and September, in baskets and at the edge of the sidewalk.

Poppies – Last fall I dumped all my outdated Poppy seed packets into a 4’x8’ raised bed. They looked amazing for months and are still blooming, although a bit ragged. I am keeping them there to harvest the seed and am sure to plant again each fall (without having to buy more seed). Plant them where you can enjoy them from the windows because they do not last in a vase.

Fennel, dill, parsley, and butterfly weed – Because they do increase the butterfly population if you let the caterpillars eat the foliage.

Hydrangea paniculata – Hydrangeas in summer that glow in full sun. These are so treasured that they are the first to get deer spray.

Asters – My newest obsession, offering fall blooms and deer resistance. Many are native. These are among the few plants that thrive in the hot, neglected, compacted-clay, brutal full-sun, west-facing bed. Cut the plants back by half in June for compact plants with more branching and more flowers, instead of having them flop everywhere.

I could go on and on. These favorite plants came into my garden as inheritances, gifts, recommendations, samples, whims and gambles. I have killed a lot of plants. I have cut down a few shrubs and am cursing and fighting some invasive plants. But I am always trying a few new plants and hope you are doing the same in your garden. Maybe these Coreopsis plants will join the list, maybe not. In the meantime, I’m pulling out my art supplies.

Note: This was originally written as a weekly Love Notes From the Garden.  Subscribe to these weekly emails on this website.