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Southern Garden Project

Southern Garden Grant

The word “southern” is rich with cultural variation, interpretation, identification, and history. To begin this garden project, The Arboretum conducted a very informal, random survey of individuals from North Carolina asking them for their definition of a ‘southern garden’ and the types of plants they’d expect to find there. From this small sampling, we received tremendously diverse images: fields of tobacco, kitchen gardens resplendent with vegetables and herbs, huge flower gardens not unlike English cottage gardens, ornamental gardens showcasing those plants one typically sees in the south, native plants to the south, plants found in Thomas Jefferson’s gardens, fields of wheat or soybeans, plants from Old Salem Gardens, fruit orchards, heirloom plants that have been handed down from generation to generation, plants brought over with the colonists, and on and on.

A short search of the literature found as many variations as our survey. This one paragraph seemed to best summarize some of the issues with finding a single definition:

Also of great interest and significance to Southern gardeners is information on the impact of many different cultures - Native American, English, French, Spanish, German and African-American - on the South… Regional diversity and ethnic influences survive to this day, chronicled through plants such as poet’s laurel, sweet myrtle, pomegranate, banana shrub, Cape jasmine, jujube, camellia, chinaberry or the magnolia fig. Swept yards, parterres of boxwood hedges, knot gardens, hen yards dotted with umbrella chinaberry trees or small plum trees, planters created from whitewashed tires, or even bottle trees and bottle edgings created from castoffs - all have different stories to tell. (The Southern Garden http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/southerngarden/sgintro.html).)

Nowhere could we find a single, definitive suggestion of what constitutes ‘a southern garden.’ Yet the appeal of such a themed garden remains.

The importance of creating an accurate, authentic ‘southern’ garden based on key factors that will make sense to the tourist as well as the North Carolinian (including, of course good gardening/environmental practices) is especially important from an educational standpoint. The mission of the Arboretum includes an educational component for the gardens, therefore making accurate research and selection of design and materials for this most visual aspect of the Arboretum even more crucial.

We undertook a search of the literature as we examined the historical and cultural ‘roots’ of a southern garden, especially as this related to our climatic and plant hardiness zones (7a and 7b). The study focused on three questions:

  • What is meant by the term “Southern Garden”
  • What the ‘Southern Garden’ would look like - design-wise
  • What plants might constitute the ‘Southern Garden.”

To summarize the findings of the research, I will quote from Carole LeWald’s excellent research:

“I return yet again to the imagery associated with grandmother’s “old-fashioned” garden, imagery mirrored in the walled nature of Elizabeth Lawrence’s private garden, descriptions from Page (1897), and images from various archival sources. Andrews’ (1890) description is not just evocative, but it clearly shows how the “walled” influences of African American yards, circular forms and topsy-turvy growth found in Native American gardens, and a move away from the rigidly geometrical boxwood borders and European plants unite. The convergence of these images and forms-both literally and figuratively-- form a truly “Southern Garden”. Grandmother’s garden is one that blends past and present-for grandmother, the Native American name used to refer to gardens in the southeast-- embraces a multitude of influences and is rooted to numerous pasts and a living present. Hence, all the various types of gardens discussed are indeed southern gardens. But it is this ephemeral seemingly timeless, overgrown garden with its curved beds that are hidden behind a gate that people most commonly think of as a “Southern Garden.”

“One could also create several smaller southern gardens that document the socio-historic overlap between Europeans, African Americans, Native Americans and which also accounts for the often gendered nature of gardening. Experiencing the similarities and differences between a purely functional Native American kitchen garden, a European kitchen and medicinal garden, a small cutwork parterre garden, and a walled or fenced African-American yard with the swept dirt floors and abundant flowers and vegetables, might enable a visitor to grasp the fluidity of these influences. These smaller gardens could lead to a final “Southern Garden” that would bring together many of these design elements such as the curving paths around raised beds, overflowing flowers, walled or fenced parameters, climbing vines and a mix of native and imported plants.. . deciding on key design features requires one to identify which southern garden to create. Smaller southern gardens leading to a larger old-fashioned style “Southern Garden” allows for multiple educational functions. This would offer insight into socio-cultural values and practices associated with all Southerners regardless of race, class, gender, or ethnicity. In turn, this could possibly break away stereotyped black and white notions of the South-notions that rarely pay attention to the richness and variety of “everyday” people and practices and only preserve and promote an elite understanding who is “Southern” and what “Southern” means.

“Documentation of plants that constitute antebellum kitchen and pleasure gardens vary greatly. As in Andrews’ article, prominent plants include hyacinths, pansies, pinks, roses, daffodils, narcissus, irises, azaleas crocuses, climbing vines , flowering trees such as dogwoods, magnolias, as well as fruit trees. Plant lists from historic sites such as Westville (Jordan 2006b and 2006c), Monticello (2008), and the Southern Garden History Society (2001) are readily available and offer a great deal of detail and information. Of particular importance is the Southern Garden History Society Plant List as it contains 45 individually listed plant lists starting from 1734 until 1931. The plant list has its own search function and visible hyperlinks to each list with the name and date of the list.

The Southern Garden at the Arboretum at JCC will incorporate many of these ideas! Stay tuned as this garden develops. There will be many opportunities for you to contribute plants, stories and ideas!

"In the end, we conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."

Baba Dioum, Senegalese poet



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