When you live in the South, you inevitably develop a love/hate relationship with a few of your favorite blooming plants.
Magnolias, for example. My mother loved using those luscious aromatic blooms indoors when she had a party. I could travel home from college, walk in the door, and know she was entertaining. As for my father, he hated the magnolia leaves which prolifically dropped on the front lawn. She said it was more than worth it. He was never as sure.
And that’s how it goes with our lovely traditional blooms. Camellias brighten our winters, forsythia announces that spring is just around the corner, and azaleas paint Southern yards in bright feminine hues. In older gardens such as those you find in Charleston, confederate roses, Lady Banksia roses, hydrangeas and dahlias are common.
North Carolina’s state flower is the flowering dogwood – beautiful, year round, with elegant pink or white blossoms in the spring, and lovely fall colors. South Carolina’s flowering symbol is the yellow jessamine, a vine that produces a profusion of yellow blossoms from February through April.
Evergreens do well here, and many home gardens have a few herbs by the kitchen door, or perhaps edging the flowers. A new neighbor from Chicago was overjoyed to find a massive fig tree in my back yard. With their spreading limbs, some find them more attractive than others, but for him, it’s the year-round availability of homemade fig preserves that is whetting his new Southern flora appetite.
Gardens. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while some want a formal garden structure, others prefer a riot of color and texture. It’s all good, but a bit of expert advice is helpful. Several home garden experts, including landscape architects and self-taught garden designers, shared ideas and experience. I’m headed for the garden shop tomorrow.
CAT VALAND | RALEIGH, NC
“I love what I do,” says Mrs. Valand. “I meet wonderful people and after listening to their hopes and dreams, I create designs for them. I’m not a landscape architect, but after being married to an architect for 36 years, elements of design help me with a sense of place and purpose for the outdoors around the houses.”
She enjoys helping the gardens of the house and the environment match and flow together with the style and taste of the home and owners. “I wouldn’t use formal layouts for a rural cabin,” she explained. The designer takes into account the family seeking outdoor space. Do they have children? Pets? Athletic interests? Need a play area? It all goes into the mix.
For a family with children, she created an outdoor chalkboard for creating masterpieces. A small kid-sized mailbox held the chalk. A slide was positioned in the ground on a natural hill, in a chutes and ladders concept. “We took a natural grade change that was awkward and turned it into a fun positive.” And, almost always, fire. A movable fire pit is wonderful on cool nights and is a gathering magnet for kids and teens!
Several years ago, Mrs. Valand received a call from a woman who wanted to transform her side yard into something special. With six grandchildren as frequent visitors, and a very high, old azalea hedge, the yard was re-created into a secret Peter Pan garden. A window frame hanging from a tree-formed Ligustrum hedge and created a child-sized entrance to fly out of the nursery window. English style chimney pots became rooftops to fly over, vine covered teepees were created for the Indians' camp, a pint-sized Captain Hooks’ ship was built around a huge Sweet Gum trunk, black mondo grass became the water, a folk art alligator was nearby, and even metal mermaids were found in a local collectibles shop. The children loved their garden for years.
What advice would she give a newcomer to the Triangle area of North Carolina? “Often, newcomers aren’t familiar with our climate, and even though they may come from the same planting zone, zone 7 in California is very different from zone 7 in North Carolina.” She recommends paying attention to what you can’t see – the nature of the soil, for example. Developing a master plan that can be implemented in stages is a good way to begin. Using installers that you trust is also important. “Cheap installers often cost more in the long term when plants fail to flourish, or grow too large for their allocated space.”
She likes to incorporate herbs into her designs. “Rosemary does well positioned near an outdoor grill, for easy access.” She advocates designing its positioning, so that the grillmeister is part of the group. Water features are popular throughout the South, and she’s created designs which include everything from a bubbling urn to a full pond around which appropriate plantings offer color and beauty.
And clearly, yard art is a plus. “I recommend my clients go to farmers markets and antique shops and find wonderful treasures. Something that makes them smile,” she said. “I like to put a star of Texas, birdhouses, or other quirky art on a plain fence. Use the fence like an empty canvas. Above all, I try to think of the property in relation to the owner,” she said. “If I can add creativity and elements that will make them smile and be enjoyed for many years, that’s a great reward.”
CHARLES GODFREY | SPARTANBURG, SC
"I have very strong leanings toward classical design,” says Charles Godfrey, a landscape architect with undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Georgia School of Environment and Design. “Even the most contemporary and abstract settings can benefit from our heritage and the basic principles of design." Mr. Godfrey advocates “building the bones of a garden first, which means establishing strong evergreens.” An example is boxwoods, a favorite plant he often uses. The fun stuff comes later, like flowering shrubs, perennials, annuals and, of course, herbs.
“All too often, when families move to a new town, there is only a weekend or two to buy a new house,” he shared. “And then the process begins to try to fit and conform their lifestyle to the new house. I advise them to think outside the box and to create an environment of changes that will make the new house a home to fit their lifestyle.” He advises that we all open the doors and windows and bring our gardens inside.
“Every home and backyard garden should have a quality of privacy,” he says. “We all need to feel safe in a space of our own in which to relax and refresh.”
Mr. Godfrey often uses water in a garden. “People are attracted to water. The sound of water can be soothing; it’s fun to touch, it’s a great focal point, and it attracts birds and … other critters.”
Mr. Godfrey also uses outside lighting extensively in gardens. “Light allows gardens to be enjoyed day and night, 365 days a year. When it is too cold to be outside, turn down the indoor lighting and turn on the outdoor lighting. It is magic.”
TIM KNOWLES | GREENSBORO, NC
As a landscape architect in the Greensboro/Triad area for 30 years, Tim Knowles has won 14 state and national awards for his designs and his work has been featured in several magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens and Renovation Style. To begin the design process, he says, “I want to know how my clients plan to use their space and what is the scope of the project. Will the design be for the entire property or only a portion? Because I like to think of landscapes as outdoor ‘rooms,’ I need to know if you want an outdoor kitchen, living area, or play room. For patios and decks, it helps me to know what type of furniture you have (or want) so I can design the space with that in mind. I also want to know if you would like any covered space for shelter and/or shade. And because they’ve become very popular, I always ask about fire pits or fireplaces.”
“My clients almost always ask for year-round color, so I suggest we start with trees and shrubs with varying leaf color, because flowering shrubs and trees usually only bloom for a few weeks at a time. For continuous color, I suggest mixing in some perennials with annuals in the summer and pansies in the winter. If you live in the country or near large natural areas, the presence of deer can be a factor, so be careful before you plant azaleas, pansies, Indian hawthorn and other deer favorites.” He says he has a list of “deer-proof” plants, but when deer are really hungry they will eat almost anything!
Favorites include plum yew (Cephalotaxus), Chinese pistache, kaleidoscope abelia, sasanqua camellias, holly ferns and fatsia. In his own courtyard, he has over 50 varieties of plants.
Many of his design projects are hardscape oriented and may include pergolas, walls, concrete or brick pavers, pools and fountains. He prefers these types of projects because of his landscape architecture background. He doesn’t have many requests for sculptures but for some clients, it’s an important part of their wish list. That’s easy to accommodate with many talented sculpture artists in the South.
Above all, he suggests having a plan drawn by a trained design professional who knows the climate and soil conditions of the Piedmont, where he lives and works. At the beginning, he advises using websites like Houzz and Pinterest to find gardens and garden elements that appeal to you, and then provide that information to your designer for inspiration (not to copy). It also helps to let him know if there are any plants you dislike.
“Rather than influence the design with my own style, I design outdoor spaces to match the style of the home’s architecture and blend this in with the natural environment of the property,” he says. “If I’ve done a good job of doing this and listening to my client’s wants, needs and wishes, all that will work together and the result will be outdoor rooms and gardens that enhance the home and provide enjoyment for the owner’s lifestyle for many years.”
MARY T. DIAL | COLUMBIA, SC
“My parents were obsessed with gardening and, as a child, I’d follow my grandfather around and help outside,” Mary T. Dial explained. “My parents bought a nursery as a hobby and we’d root boxwoods and azaleas. I’ve loved working in the dirt all my life.”
As a designer, she prefers classical, more formal gardens like you might find in Charleston and Savannah. “You can also incorporate less formal elements into a space with strong, well-defined lines and beds.” She uses lots of boxwoods and podocarpus as hedges and loves using brick borders and beautiful ornamental grass. “I try to match the landscape to the architecture of the house and the neighborhood,” she says. “In some neighborhoods, azaleas, camellias, youpon hollies and oak trees just look appropriate. In other areas, palm trees look great.” She confesses that she has palms in her yard and loves hearing them rustle when she’s outdoors.
“I recently designed a very tropical garden and incorporated strong, symmetrical lines,” Mrs. Dial explained. “The owner wanted plants that don’t usually grow in Columbia and the Midlands, but we were able to find plants that fit her wish list and would flourish in our climate.”
Lots of clients want herbs and containers, while others want all greenery in their gardens. “Almost everyone wants hydrangeas,” she laughed. Among her favorite plants is a flowering apricot (which is actually a form of cherry tree). She likes a flowering vitex, as well as boxwoods, hydrangeas and knockout roses.
Her advice to newcomers? “Soil preparation is everything. Planting the right plants in the right areas will save you years of trouble. Remember to consider the mature size of what you’re planting.” In terms of yard art, she likes to incorporate her clients’ precious things. And always, fountains and large containers add style and appeal to an outdoor garden.owner’s lifestyle for many years.”
YEAR-ROUND BLOOMS IN THE MIDLANDS?
Yes, you can. Mary T. Dial, the Itinerant Gardener
JANUARY: camellia japonica, Daphne, quince, winter honeysuckle
FEBRUARY: forsythia, flowering apricot, star magnolia, tea olives
MARCH: banana shrub and crabapple trees, Indian hawthorn
APRIL: azaleas, dogwood, Lady Banksia roses, spirea
MAY: butterfly bush, magnolia, oak leaf hydrangea, hybrid roses
JUNE: crepe myrtles, mock orange, oleander, lantana, verbena
JULY: day lilies, hostas, plumbago, stokesia
AUGUST: salvia, dahlia, pineapple sage, black-eyed Susan
SEPTEMBER: blackberry lily, chrysanthemums, ginger lily
OCTOBER: tea olives, salvias, daisies
NOVEMBER: camellia sasanqua, abelia, pansies, violas
DECEMBER: camellia japonica, pyracantha
HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?
Carolina gardens have blooms to spare and so much more. From formal to riotous, they all work in this most desirable four-season climate, and with gorgeous gates, fabulous fountains, and objets d’art, the gardens morph into outdoor rooms extraordinaire. Take a wander and try to keep that smile from your face.
BEAUTY AND THE BEST
Hidden from view, these gardens are as open – or private – as you wish. Boxwoods keep the look classic and wildflowers spread the joy with abandon. Entertain friends, or dine al fresco with the family and be reminded, time and again, that this is one very good reason why you chose to call the Carolinas home.
Cat Valand | www.catvaland.com/main.html
Charles Godfrey, ASLA | ceglandscapearchitects.com
Tim Knowles, PLA, ASLA | www.borum-wade.com
Mary T. Dial | Facebook/The Itinerant Gardener