Designing a simple Southern garden is as easy as baking a Southern pecan pie! All you need are the right ingredients, and your oasis will be thriving in a short period of time. Southern gardens have their own unique, definitive style and personality. For example, spend a morning or afternoon perusing the gardens at The Hampton Preston Mansion in downtown Columbia as this historic garden is undergoing a restoration with period appropriate plants and materials.
A stroll around the Lace House and adjoining Caldwell Boylston House at the Governor’s Mansion complex is also a great place to get ideas for your own Southern garden. Take your camera and a notebook to record which types of plants you would like to include in your own garden. Make notes on the amount of sun or shade where the plants are thriving. Notice the bed lines. Are you more partial to straight, formal lines or sweeping curved lines? After a few hours in these beautiful gardens, you will have the beginnings of a perfect recipe.
Plants to Include
The largest plants to include in a Southern garden design are the trees. Trees create the walls and focal points of a garden, and many add color through gorgeous blooms or vibrant fall foliage. Evergreen trees add structure, formality and create the shade needed to grow certain types of plants, as well as provide a cool spot to linger during our hot summer months. Trees also provide a nesting habitat for birds and squirrels that add another lovely dimension to the landscape. Magnolias, crape myrtles, loquats, figs, Dogwoods and live oaks are ubiquitous in many Southern gardens.
If you have the space, consider lining your driveway or a long walkway with an alley of live oaks or a soldier straight row of crape myrtles. Loquats can be espaliered against a chimney or wall to add texture and beautiful spring fruit, and Dogwoods are the stars of the spring garden in the Midlands. No Southern garden is complete without one! Fig trees are easy to grow and produce an abundance of fruit which usually ripens in July giving you a chance to teach your children and grandchildren to make fig preserves. I also love the shape of fig leaves and use them as “doilies” on serving trays, or I will cut branches to add height to a flower arrangement.
Every Southern garden should showcase a collection of flowering evergreen shrubbery. My favorites, and the easiest to grow, are Azalea, Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua and Gardenia. Include each of these in your garden design and you will have flowers from April (Azaleas) to May (Gardenias), through March (Camellia japonica) with Camellia sasanqua blooming in September, October and early November. There is a good reason these shrubs are so common — they are tough, and they survive while adding beauty throughout the entire year.
Boxwoods are, without a doubt, the most important ingredient as American boxwoods are the quintessential Southern foundation plant. Korean or Harlandii boxwoods are the most popular boxwood used for parterre gardens and for borders. The newer Winter Green boxwood can be used successfully as a foundation plant and as a border plant.
Dwarf pittosporum are another essential element which thrive in our hot summers and are a perfect companion to boxwoods in a foundation planting. Fatsia japonica is an easy to grow, tough plant that adds a touch of the tropics to the garden with its large palmated leaves and white flowers that appear in the fall. Podocarpus (frequently mislabeled as ‘yew’) is another important plant to include. This evergreen shrub grows upright and adds structure and formality to the garden design. They are also an excellent choice for a hedge to create your own “secret garden.”
No Southern garden is authentic without roses and hydrangeas. Roses come in many different shapes and sizes, and there are many different types: Hybrid tea, Floribunda, Grandiflora, Old Fashioned and Climbers. There is certainly one or more variety that will be perfect for you. Roses can be used as focal points as they can be trained over an arbor or pergola, or they can be the stars of their own formal garden.
One of my favorite things to do is to find old roses growing near abandoned houses and cemeteries. (Hint: Always have your garden nippers with you!) When travelling rural roads, if you see a rose growing and blooming in an abandoned area, take a cutting. Put the cutting in a glass of water until it sprouts roots, then put it in a clay pot with light potting soil. Place it outside in a shady spot that gets a little morning sun. Keep it watered and in six to eight weeks, you will have a new “old” rose bush. Cherokee roses are particularly easy to root, so give it a try.
Hydrangeas have to be one of the most popular Southern garden plants — all of the gardens I design get a few hydrangeas. Hydrangea macrophylla, or Big Leaf Hydrangea, are covered with large mop-head blooms in late May through June. The blooms will be pink in alkaline soil and blue in acidic soil. Hydrangea quercifolia are commonly known as Oakleaf Hydrangea. Their big, coarse leaves really do look like oak leaves. Oakleaf hydrangea produce large white blooms in our hot summer months. “Snow Queen” is a favorite oakleaf hybrid. Both types of hydrangea are wonderful as cut and as dried flowers.
One big advantage of adding herbs to the Southern garden is that most of them are heat and drought resistant and actually thrive on neglect. Most herbs like as much sun as possible. Be careful not to over water, as many herbs will rot from too much moisture. Herbs benefit from a light layer of mulch, but avoid using pine straw because it produces acid as it decays.
I bet many of you had grandmothers who grew their mint right beside a water spigot. Mine sure did, and we would pick it and include it in our iced tea for every meal. Mint is a great filler to use in flower arrangements and also serves as an organic bug repellent. Crush mint leaves where ants are a problem, and they will avoid that area. Rosemary is another easy-to-grow, wonderful herb. The fragrance is fresh and wonderful, and rosemary leaves are delicious when used to flavor roasted chicken and potatoes. It is also a popular flavor for ice cream! Rosemary can be used as a border plant and is especially effective as a border for an herb or vegetable garden. Plant them root ball to root ball and keep them trimmed to create a tight and formal border.
Grass or turf is an important component. Nothing sets off planting beds of evergreens or flowering plants than a beautiful stand of turf grass. The two most common turf grasses in the Midlands are St. Augustine, or “Charleston grass,” and Zoysia. Get professional advice before choosing or putting down sod to make sure you choose the right grass depending on the amount of sunlight the area receives. Soil preparation is absolutely essential to ensure good drainage, and irrigation is another integral ingredient to having strong, healthy grass. Overwatering is very common and can lead to grass failure.
Most Southern gardens will include one or more of the following garden elements: walls, brick paths, pebble paths, mulched paths, brick borders, planted borders — such as mondo or liriope — arbors or garden gates. Create drama and mystery in the garden by including a wooden or wrought iron gate covered with a rose laden arbor that opens to a brick path leading to a hidden part of the garden. Imagine walking down that path to a cozy Lutyens bench under a beautiful live oak or magnolia tree.
Garden ornaments are the accessories of the garden. These might include fountains, benches, urns or statues. I recommend choosing the garden ornaments after the garden design has been finalized and planted, but many times a garden ornament may be a family heirloom, and the entire garden will be designed around it. Garden ornaments should not be over done. Err on the side of too few rather than too many. Install low voltage lighting to highlight the ornament in the evening. These ornaments can really bring the garden to life by adding style and charm to the landscape.
Designing a garden can be a daunting task, but with a good recipe it can be a very enjoyable experience. There are so many choices that you simply must limit your options. If a Southern-style garden appeals to you, take this list with you when you visit The Hampton Preston or Lace House garden. How many of these plants do you find there? What elements do you see? What beautiful ornaments do you find? Choose the correct components for your garden, such as the plants, elements and ornaments, stick with your plan, follow through, and you will end up with the garden of your dreams. Gardens do not happen overnight, and a garden can be forever … so enjoy the lovely process!
Chores for the September Gardener
• Deadhead any tired looking annuals and perennials.
• Air layer hydrangea, azalea and even fig trees to have more plants to share in the spring.
• Pinch the tops out of begonias. Place the cut piece in a glass or jar of water. Roots will sprout. Replant and enjoy a fresh new plant until the first hard frost.
• In late September, over seed existing grass with winter rye to enjoy lush, green grass all winter.
• Plant flats of pansies and violas for winter and spring color.
• Plant snapdragons for early spring blossoms.
• Plant cool season crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale.
• Sow seeds of spinach and lettuce for a fresh crop before the first frost.
• Harvest all of your basil and make basil pesto to last through the winter.
• Redefine planting beds and add a light layer of mulch to make the beds look fresh and groomed.
• Divide and replant any crowded perennials or share with a lucky gardening friend. Pot up any special perennials and give at Christmas.
• Add a few bright chrysanthemums to your summer annual and perennial beds for instant color.
• Don’t stop weeding … you’ll be glad in the spring.
• Check any indoor plants that are enjoying the outdoors. Spray off any insects that may have made themselves at home on leaves on in the soil.
• Visit local nurseries and garden centers to check out their sales racks. This is a good time to try out new plants.
• Visit outdoor furniture stores. Many times there are great sales this time of year on outdoor furniture and cushions. Maybe its time to freshen your outdoor living space with new cushions, an outdoor rug or accent piece such as a new pair of lanterns.
• Look back at your garden journal to compare successes and failures compared to a year ago.
• Visit the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden to see what’s blooming. Maybe you’ll want to add something new to the garden.
• Change burned out low voltage lights in the garden and cut branches or vines that are blocking the lights.
• Check irrigation. Cut back when the temperatures begin to lower.
What’s Blooming in September
Ageratum, Blackberry lily, Blue Salvia, Salvia leucantha, Butterfly weed, Canna lily, Chrysanthemum, Cardinal flower, Cleome, Dahlia, Gerbera daisy, Ginger lily, Hosta, Lantana, Farfugium, Plumbago, Zinnia, Abelia, Butterfly bush, roses, crape myrtle and Cassia.