A Garden of One's Own Writings of Elizabeth Lawrence
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 1997 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8078-2349-1
Chapter One Beginnings
Elizabeth Lawrence-An Autobiography
For many years my mother has kept a record of the first flowers of each season, writing down the blooms in the garden day by day in a series of small black diaries. -A Southern Garden
When I was a little girl, my mother took great pains to interest me in learning to know the birds and wildflowers and in planting a garden. I thought that roots and bulbs and seeds were as wonderful as flowers, and the Latin names on seed packages as full of enchantment as the counting-out rhymes that children chant in the spring. I remember the first time I planted seeds. My mother asked me if I knew the Parable of the Sower. I said I did not, and she took me into the house and read it to me. Once the relation between poetry and the soil is established in the mind, all growing things are endowed with more than material beauty.
When I was twelve we came to live in Raleigh, in a house with an already established garden. It was fall when we came, and there was not much in bloom-only some old-fashioned roses and chrysanthemums that the frost had not caught. But the first spring was like living my favorite book, The Secret Garden. Every day the leaves and flower buds of some plant that we did not know was there would break through the cold earth. There were snowdrops under the hedge and crocuses in the grass, and the garden pattern was picked out in daffodils. And under the eaves of the summerhouse, a single fat white hyacinth bloomed. No other spring has ever been so beautiful, except the spring of the year I came home from college. The first spring in the South after four years in New York led me to choose gardening as a profession.
In the fall, a course in landscape architecture (the first in the South) was started at the North Carolina State College [North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.], and I started with it, the only girl in the class. One morning a visitor came into the drafting room and stopped at my drawing table in passing and said, "I know another Miss Lawrence who is a landscape architect. She knows as much about plant material as anyone in the profession." I felt as if the mantle of the other Miss Lawrence had been thrown across my shoulders. I had never heard of her before, and I have never heard of her since; but, because of her, I felt a compulsion to study plants. I soon learned, however, that a knowledge of plant material for the South could not be got in the library, most of the literature of horticulture being for a different climate, and that I would have to grow the plants in my garden and learn about them for myself.
My ancestors were people who lived to be very old, and it encourages me to know that that I may have inherited their longevity and that I have many years ahead to see bloom in garden flowers that I have never seen in bloom before and have only just heard of.
Twenty-One Plant Facts for Gardeners in the Middle South
The difficulty is not that it is too hot or too cold, or too wet or too dry, but that the changes from one extreme to the other are so frequent and so sudden. -A Southern Garden
1. In Southern gardens, it is certainly better to use plant material adapted to mild climates than to struggle with varieties that will only thrive where the summers are cool. On the other hand, we should not be too sure that desirable plants will not grow in the South until we have given them a fair trial. Many plants that fail do so not because of the hot weather, but because they are not watered and not planted in a soil with sufficient humus. Many plants that do well in the North in full sun can be grown here if given some shade.
2. Two favorite perennials definitely not for the South are hybrid delphinium and Oriental poppies. While Chinese delphinium, especially the dwarf types, will do fairly well, other strains must be treated as annuals or biennials, and even then will be poor things compared to those grown in the North. We can console ourselves with larkspur, which reaches its perfection with us, especially since the large stock-flowering varieties have been developed. Baby's breath is also a doubtful subject for Southern flower borders, but we can substitute the charming wild spurge, Euphorbia corollata, which responds to cultivation when brought into the garden.
3. The controversy is still going on as to whether the French hybrid lilacs are worthwhile for the South. The general opinion seems to be that they are, if well watered and given a northern exposure. Certainly we should not give up all hope of having them, if they can be grown by taking a little extra trouble. Those who fail with them may do so because they have not given them the proper care, and not because of the exigencies of the climate. The Persian lilacs are unquestionably the best species for the South. They have the added advantage of being free from attacks of insects and diseases. There are white and purple forms of Syringa persica, and the dainty cut-leaf Persian lilac (Syringa persica laciniata) [Syringa laciniata] is very desirable for the fine texture of its foliage.
4. Nandina domestica, the heavenly bamboo of China and Japan, is hardy in the mid-South and root hardy in protected places in the Northern states. It is considered an evergreen, and no doubt it is in the far South. But in North Carolina, it sometimes drops its leaves. Nandina is a small, slender shrub resembling a bamboo in form and foliage. Its leaves turn red before they fall. The enormous bunches of brilliant red berries persist all winter and even in the spring, when they are likely to detract from the effect of early-flowering shrubs if planted too near them. Nandina will thrive in sun or partial shade. It is said to require a great deal of moisture, but it does very well for me without it. It is a favorite shrub for foundation planting, which is to be regretted when the house is of certain shades of brick.
5. As it is unquestionably the best practice for them, Southern gardeners need not take part in the arguments for and against fall planting. Here perennials planted in the spring do not have time to get established before the hot weather. November is the best month for remaking the borders and setting out most perennials because the early fall is likely to be dry. Annuals, if sown in the fall, should be sown in October or in December, not in November. I think December preferable, as the beds will be ready for the winter then and the seeds will not be disturbed.
6. About two inches of well-rotted manure and compost spread on the top of the flower beds in the fall will break down during the winter and be available for food when the plants begin their growth in the spring. In the South, many plants keep their green tops and continue to make new growth all winter. They cannot be mulched heavily, as is the practice where the ground freezes, but they need some protection against sudden freezes after very mild weather. It is a good plan to watch the weather reports and put a light covering of broom straw over the beds when a heavy freeze is predicted. This should be taken off when it turns warm again and put back when there is another sudden drop in temperature. This is not much trouble, as it will only be necessary once or twice during the winter.
7. The mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), a graceful tree from the Orient, has become naturalized along the highways in the South, and is hardy to Washington. It is a perfect tree for flower gardens because its shade is too light to keep flowers and shrubs from blooming and because, being a legume, it adds nitrogen to the soil. In addition to its resistance to disease and insects, it has a characteristic and interesting form, fine fern-like foliage, and delicate, silky rose or yellow flowers borne profusely in June and sparsely throughout the rest of the summer. Their tropical fragrance is delightfully refreshing on hot summer nights.
8. Roses should be pruned and given a dormant spray when the buds begin to swell. In the North this happens in March; in the South in February. They should be sprayed with a fungicide when the flower buds appear, and again when the buds show color. I don't know why the Radiance roses are so looked down upon by connoisseurs. They are certainly the best group for the South. In addition to 'Pink Radiance' and 'Red Radiance', there is the exquisite 'Mrs. Charles Bell' and the brilliant 'American Flower Guild'. The last has a slenderer bud than most of its group and is the shade of the 'American Beauty', with the same unfortunate habit of fading to a washed-out magenta. Those Southerners who are above growing these easy and satisfactory varieties will find that the 'Duchesse de Brabant', 'Killarney Queen', the 'Duchess of Wellington', 'Kardinal Piffl', and 'Antoine Rivoire' will do well for them.
9. Although the winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is the only one commonly planted, there are several other species available. The winter jasmine is hardy to New York. It blooms off and on all winter and profusely in the spring. The drooping green branches give it the effect of an evergreen during the winter. It will grow anywhere, sun or shade, and in any soil. It is especially good to plant where the soil washes because the tips of the branches take root wherever they touch the ground. Jasminum primulinum [Jasminum mesnyi], blooming in May, is evergreen in the far South. Jasminum floridum, hardy to Maryland, blooms in the summer.
10. German iris are particularly adapted to planting in the South because the hot dry summers are needed to ripen the rhizomes. Some of the tenderer varieties, such as 'Purissima', cannot be grown in the North. Because German iris should not be watered during the summer and because they like lime, it is best to keep them out of the perennial border and give them a place to themselves. Drought-resistant annuals that are not tall enough or heavy enough to shade the rhizomes may be planted between them for summer bloom. Portulaca, California poppies, or nemophila will do very well. Immediately after the blooming period is considered the time to divide iris. However, in this climate, where it is apt to be dry at that time, the months of July, August, or September are safer. Those set out in July and August will make the best bloom the following year.
11. Northern gardeners will tell you that peonies should be set out on September the fifteenth; not the fourteenth, not the sixteenth-the fifteenth. One even goes so far as to say that peonies should be set out at nine o'clock on September the fifteenth. Since peonies must be taken up only when they are dormant, the best time for the South is the middle of October. They should not be allowed to bloom the first year after they have been divided. Late varieties will not thrive in the South. One of the best for this climate is 'Edulis Superba'. Others that will do well are 'Festiva Maxima', 'Felix Crousse', 'Baroness Shroeder', 'M. Jules Elie', 'Mikado', and 'Louis Van Houtte' [varieties of Paeonia lactiflora]. They should be protected from the hot afternoon sun.
12. The most important factor in gardening in the South is the length of the blooming season. We cannot have the burst of bloom that is possible in cold climates where everything comes out all at once. But we can have flowers nearly every month in the year. Usually there is one month when the gardens are bare. Some years it is November, and some years it is January. We should make the most of this long season by using late-blooming varieties of fall flowers and early-blooming varieties of spring flowers. If the seeds of Crotalaria spectabilis are sown in June, the magnificent yellow spikes will begin to bloom the first of October and will last until late in November, unless there is an early frost. The little unidentified early trumpet narcissus that can be bought so cheaply by the bushel will bloom long before the larger, later varieties.
13. The ginger lily (Hedychium coronarium), an herbaceous perennial from tropical Asia, is hardy in Virginia. It is a valuable plant for the borders in late summer and fall, blooming from the middle of August until frost. The delicate, very fragrant white flowers are borne in terminal spikes. The plant is rather like a cornstalk in appearance, and the heavy tropical foliage makes a strong accent. The roots are fleshy. The ginger lily, or butterfly lily as it is sometimes called, requires a rich soil and plenty of water before blooming.
14. Cassias are invaluable for the mid-South because they withstand the summer drought and bloom gaily in September and October. The yellow, pea-shaped flowers and pale green leaves are as fresh as the spring flowers, no matter how shriveled everything else in the garden is. Cassia marilandica [Senna marilandica] grows to three or four feet. Cassia corymbosa [Senna corymbosa] is taller. Both may be used in a wide perennial border or in the shrubbery. Orange marigolds and white zinnias planted late in June will bloom in time to make a charming foreground for them.
15. I have heard various and conflicting reports as to the success of the Chinese elm [Ulmus parvifolia] in the South: that it is a very desirable tree and has all of the virtues claimed for it as to rapid growth and resistance to disease, or that it is not at all attractive and is so riddled by beetles and infested with disease that it has to be cut down. Of the specimens I have seen, some are fairly healthy looking, but the foliage is rather thin. Others are actually diseased. With so many disease-proof trees available, such as the ginkgo and the native elm, which are quick-growing and very attractive, I can see no need to experiment with the Chinese elm unless it proves to be of exceptional value.
16. In the mid-South where one may sit out of doors on mild days in winter, more use should be made of foliage plants. There are interesting contrasts in the fine, dark texture of the conifers, the shining leaves of the broad-leaved evergreens, and the grays and gray-greens of lavender, santolina, and rosemary. Beds edged with perennial candytuft have neat borders that are green all winter and burst into bloom on the first spring days. Ivy is especially attractive in winter. It is interesting to plant several kinds for the variety in their leaf patterns.
17. It is unfortunate that the most commonly planted summer-blooming shrub in the South should be seen most frequently in the hottest shades of magenta. Sometimes very old crape myrtles [Lagerstroemia indica] are found in a soft shade of mauve that is lovely with the gray branches. Very old ones have thin foliage and beautiful bark. The salmon shades of crape myrtle are endurable if too many are not seen at once, but the white is safest. They must be planted in full sun if they are to bloom, and they need plenty of room to develop to their natural size and form.
18. The Banksia rose (Rosa banksiae), an evergreen climber used a great deal in the far South and hardier than is usually supposed, will grow luxuriantly in North Carolina. It drops its leaves there and is sometimes killed back in severe weather, but it will come out again. The flowers are small yellow rosettes born in clusters in April. Coming at the same time as most of the azaleas, their pale yellow is very desirable. Rosa wichuraiana, the memorial rose, is entirely evergreen. It has small, single, creamy-white flowers in June. The foliage is very fine and glossy.
19. Languid Southerners should fill their gardens with bulbs. All daffodils do well here, and there is an endless variety of tender bulbs that will thrive where the winters are not too severe. By planting the earliest varieties of snowdrops and crocuses and by making use of the many half-hardy fall-blooming bulbs, such as the British soldiers [or Guernsey lily] (Nerine sarniensis), a garden can have bloom from bulbs almost continuously from January until Thanksgiving. The various crinums bloom at different times from May until frost. There are many delightful summer-blooming alliums, and another member of the onion family, Triteleia uniflora [Ipheion uniflorum], blooms early in the spring.
20. Among the evergreen plants hardy in the mid-South are a number of useful vines. The common honeysuckle is evergreen here, but is also a strong grower and must not be used except in neglected corners. The yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is native, and may be gotten from the woods. It should be moved when it is in bloom, which is lucky, because it is inconspicuous enough when the fragrant, deep yellow flowers have faded. The southern smilax (S. laurifolia), also native, has black berries. Elaeagnus pungens var. 'Reflexa' [E. reflexa] may also be used as a vine and is more attractive when it is climbing a tree than when it is used as a shrub. All evergreen vines will hold foliage better if fertilized.
21. In planning groups of plants to bloom together in the South, it must be remembered that our blooming dates are entirely different from those in the North. Combinations worked out for the North can seldom be used here. As a rule, the Northern dates can be moved up a month for us, but that is not always so. In House & Garden's gardening guide (November 1930), Mr. Rockwell gives April and May as the blooming season for doronicum. In my garden it blooms in March and April, but is at its best in March. The Iceland poppy, which he puts down as blooming from May to October, blooms here in the early spring and dries up when the first hot weather comes.
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