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Master Plan: Southern Garden Culture

Master Plan Contributions for the JCC Arboretum Southern Garden

Southern “culture” can be recognized as the contributions of four major groups that initially settled the region and contributed distinct cultural influences:

  • Native Americans
  • West Africans
  • European settlers (Predominantly from southern England and settlers from the British Isles, loosely known as ‘Scotch-Irish”.) But also immigrants from Germany, France, Spain.

English/Scottish influence and the West African influence were most pronounced during the 1600s and 1700s when these populations settled in our region. And while migrations from other parts of Europe continued, MAJOR migration into the south did not resume significantly until the 1960s and 1970s; thus creating a distinct ‘southern’ culture.

Though all cultures evolve and variations occur, the patterns established by these culture groups has been and continues to be the predominance of farming (agriculture) and rural living. From our music, language, values, attitudes, food, education, and, yes, gardens, these contributions continue.


Native American Influence

  • Roads and pathways connecting towns, trade routes and waterways
  • Agriculture (food crops) such as corn, beans and squash
  • The use of wild plants. These are the native plants that they used, preserved or changed through their own use or gardening/farming practices. They are the ‘wild or native’ plants that are found in our landscape. Many of these ‘natives’ have found their way in our gardens, nurseries and retail stores. It is often from this genetic base that many of our domestic ‘new’ plants are created.

European contributions are many and I’ll list a short summary here (The Southern Heirloom Garden, William C. Welch and Greg Grant, 1995):

The Spanish Influence:

  • Four-part gardens with a water feature as its central point
  • Structures built for shade
  • Formal, symmetrical garden plans
  • Intensely utilized garden spaces, and
  • Bright, contrasting colors for garden elements.

The French Influence:

  • Formality of garden plans
  • Parterres (flower gardens with paths and beds and arranged in patterns)
  • Alees (avenues or rows of trees)
  • Dividing the utilitarian areas from the pleasure areas
  • Aromatic, colorful plants and
  • Containers of plants.
  • Knot gardens were refined by Renaissance Italian gardeners, but were continued during the eighteenth century by the French. Those ‘wild’ plants used and maintained by Native Americans, such as yaupon and American holly and cherry laurel were some of the native shrubs used in our earliest Southern gardens.
  • These formal gardens are often those that we find in Plantation or Antebellum gardens. These gardens were formed from the wealth of the plantations as well as the aesthetic sensibilities of these landowners. These gardeners and gardens have made significant contributions to the more formal ‘southern garden’ concept.

Despite the significant contributions to the south in terms of culture and economics made by plantation owners, the majority of ‘southerners’ before the Civil War were small farmers. These farms typically consisted of several hundred acres worked by family members. To this end, we look to the contributions by the English and German:

The English Influence

  • The grid-plan for gardens meant a central walk with sidewalks and garden plots coming off this central axis (like a wheel)
  • By the late 18th century, formal gardens had given way to a ‘natural style.’ Curved lines followed the natural contours of the land, and straight-lines were no longer popular.
  • By the 20th century, Gertrude Jekyll’s landscaping principles of color and design greatly influenced American Gardens
  • The influences of Germany can be seen most notably in the Gardens of Old Salem. The informal, intercropped gardens were laid out in neat rectangular beds with a central work path, small work paths throughout the areas, and a summerhouse at the end of the central path.

The African Influence

The forced African migration to the South took place primarily from 1600 through the early 1800s. These young men and women came from a long tradition of agricultural and herding communities predominantly from West Africa. They contributed their skills, knowledge and labor to the plantation culture of the south.

  • Crops: Vegeculture is different from European agricultural systems in that it emphasizes the planting of perennial crops (plants that can be harvested one at a time and used as needed).
  • Food contributions: such plants as peanuts, gourds, okra.
  • Hand tools were used extensively, so crops were grown in patches rather than in rows.
  • Most African-American gardens were utilitarian rather than ornamental.
  • Utilitarian gardens were often decorated with objects and other plants as a way to show graciousness and welcome.
  • The ‘swept-yard.’ Outdoor spaces were kept clean from vegetation by sweeping with a brush broom (often made from dogwood, gall berry or dog fennel branches bunched and tied together). Literature suggests that this garden element probably originated in West African communities.
  • Herbs for culinary or medicinal purposes were not common in these gardens except for mint and garlic.
  • Gardens emphasized the use of colorful flowers, most often annuals such as: petunias, marigolds, and four-o’clocks; perennials such as cannas, chrysanthemums, irises and daylilies.
  • Container plantings most often consisting of self-seeding or easily propagated plants such as: roses, altheas, and azaleas, forsythia and crepe myrtle.
  • Foliage shrubs were rarely grown.

There seems to be this common cluster of values for those who work the land, live close to it, and derive all or part of their subsistence or living from it, despite cultural differences. Yet it is important as an educational facility in Johnston County to pay homage to these culture groups who have influenced and shaped ‘our Southern Gardens.” Thus, the JCC “Southern Garden.”

"Gardens are a form of autobiography."

Sydney Eddison, Horticulture magazine, August/September 1993

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