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.

What is a native plant? Why plant them?

almost as printed in the Athens Banner-Herald April 2010

“Native plants – gotta have ‘em.” seems to be a mantra among home gardeners, garden magazines and more. But what is a native plant and why would we want to plant them?

In the past few months I have had the opportunity to travel around the state on many trips, spending time in cars with staff members of the State Botanical Garden’s Research and Conservation and the Horticulture Departments, plus the Interim Director – captive audiences who could explain what a native plant is and does. My favorite short description is that a native plant was one growing in this area when the Europeans settled here. OK, so it is a plant that has been here for 300-400 years. Doesn’t seem like much time, but actually since that time many acres have been cleared for cities, cotton, pine forests and more. Since that time English ivy, privet, Chinese wisteria and other non-native invasive plants have made themselves at home, shading out and crowding out native plants.

OK, we have a rough timeline, so where is ‘here’? The native purists may say native means native to the county, others define the area as Georgia. Many native plant societies represent their state, which politically makes a lot of sense but covers many different geographic regions. The plants themselves could care less about our political boundaries. I tend to embrace the Southeast, partially because I have gardened in three areas in the Southeast and I am a member of Southeastern sections of a few plant organizations. Northern and Western North America is so different from us and so unfamiliar to me as a gardener that I stay Southeast when I think ‘native’. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow their plants – leatherleaf mahonia is from the opposite corner of the country, yet I have two of those plants thriving in my garden. Echinacea tennesseensis is native to a small area near Nashville, Tennessee, but will be at the Botanical Garden Plant Sale and will do well in our gardens. Home gardeners must keep in mind though that if a plant is native to a shady creek bank in this area, offering it a dry sunny spot will probably not make it happy. It is important to match the growing conditions, not just the geography.

As a rule, native plants, truly native plants, are species. If a plant is a cultivar, which stands for ‘cultivated variety’, someone bred the plant to encourage certain characteristics. This is why nurseries now offer an abundance of leaf colors in coral bells (Heuchera) and coneflowers (Echinacea) with double petals or fragrance or with bloom colors of purples, wines, yellows and white. So Heuchera villosa is a Southeastern native plant and one of the parents of Heuchera ‘Georgia Peach’, a cultivar. Cultivars of our native trees may offer larger flowers, variegated leaves or more vivid fall foliage colors. Purists may only want the plants found growing naturally; I embrace all the varieties and crosses of natives that offer what I see as the best of both worlds. 

So why plant natives? The common answer is that because they are native to the area, these plants are hardier and more pest resistant, which basically is true. It’s hard to clump everything into one pile. Some natives are still fussy, especially when they are planted in the wrong spot. Remember what the dogwoods looked like at the height of our drought? Other natives can be bullies and grow more than we want.

But there are two reasons to plant natives that I really like. First, native plants are needed by our native wildlife. Bees, butterflies, and all the creatures native to our area need our native plants in their environment. Everything is interdependent. Planting natives helps to keep the cycle going.

Second, our native plants are ours. Texans can have their bluebonnets, Californians can have their poppies – we have plants that represent us. Our Southern magnolias, dogwoods, native azaleas, serviceberry, etc. are us, just like sweet tea, screened-in porches, and hospitality. We need to embrace these plants because they are a part of our heritage. Native plants are part of what makes this area special. We don’t want a landscape that looks like everywhere else – that would be as interesting as a highway lined with chain stores and fast food restaurants.

It’s the Weekend – Call in the Muse!

This weekend’s writing is about native perennials. That should be pretty easy, since I interviewed Jennifer Ceska for my info and her enthusiasm for native plants is beyond infectious. Listening to Jennifer is more energizing than 3 cups of coffee. She and Dr. Jim Affolter are speaking at the Johnstone Lecture at The State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens Wednesday, March 3 at 7:00 (free!), which will be a great presentation.

I have her interview recorded. I truly think that this one subject has enough inspiration to base three columns on, since there are so many great native perennials that can add to the home landscape.

I’m also working about 6 hours at the Athens Home and Garden Show – stretched over 3 days. Yuck – have to wear makeup every day this week. But the show is a good one, There are lots of fun things to see (look at the intense blue blooms on the rosemary at Thomas Orchard’s booth!), I’m running into a lot of friends and my job is to chat with folks, which I enjoy. The State Botanical Garden has 3 crafts for kids to do and take home – all involving the Monarch butterfly. And I want to hear Shelly’s talk on Georgia Gold Medal Plants Saturday afternoon.

Hopefully the writing and the Athens Home & Garden Show will inspire the creative muse, because I could really use her inspiration in my garden this weekend. I’m trying to install chicken wire fencing on metal posts. I love serpentine walls, but find the look very depressing in chicken wire! How in the world do you get it stretched tight? I am having a time getting this right and will dedicate Sunday to trying again. Thank goodness I did have the sense to buy the smaller rolls of 5′ wire and not try to save money with the huge roll. The chickens must be contained NOW – the garden is starting to leaf out and if you think deer are rough on a garden, you ought to see what chickens can do. There’s also one 4×4 wood post to install. My post hole digger has gone down 16″, but that isn’t enough. The good news is that 8′ post will be a great place for a vine and finial!