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About the Author
At the time of his death, William Lanier Hunt was a consultant to botanical gardens throughout the South as well as Honorary President of the Southern Garden History Society. He is the donor of the W. L. Hunt Arboretum at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.
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Southern Gardens, Southern Gardening
By William Lanier Hunt
Duke University PressCopyright © 1982 William Lanier Hunt
All rights reserved.
the southern winter
January is a wonderful month in the South. Snow on the magnolias one day—sunshine and winter jasmine the next. Youths skiing in the mountains—winter irises blooming in front of Rose Monroe's house in New Orleans. The first week of January is usually the coldest in the year. Even in the mid-South the thermometer may dip down to below zero, but the morning sun often brings it back up above freezing. During this first week of January, Jo Evans writes that the old-fashioned hyacinths are about to bloom in her yard at Haphazard Plantation near Natchez. Hyacinths love January down South as much as they like March in the Dutch gardens at Keukenhof. Enjoy the short southern winter while we have it; soon comes the spring and hot weather again!
The winter and spring cyclamens on my hillside have been hiding tiny buds on near-invisible stems for several weeks now. How these little stems can push up through thick oak leaves is a miracle, but they do and dare the frosts and snow. At home in the mountains around the Mediterranean, they are accustomed to the same kind of January weather we have, so the wild species from these areas adapt themselves very well to our climate in the Upper South. South of Macon, Montgomery, Jackson, Shreveport, and Dallas they need a north-facing position away from the hot sun. I am sending some to be tried even in New Orleans and Houston—but in pots where they will be high and dry! (Jo Evans thinks the muskrats ate the Cyclamen hederifolium she had growing up high on a cypress stump.)
Fraser's photinia is in fruit at this time of year on specimens that have enough age. A huge mass of rosy pink three hundred feet away attracted my attention last week on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was a Fraser's photinia that had been allowed to grow without pruning, and it was a glorious sight to behold. The berries are a little pinker than those of Photinia serrulata, one of its parents, and almost hide the foliage. This new photinia is going to be a great addition to the berried beauties of our winters. What a wonderful feat of Dame Nature to cross the gorgeous serrulata with the popular "red top" (P. glabra) in the old nursery of the Frasers in Alabama. The new creature is even more elegant than either parent. Old nurseries have given us many such gems.
This far south, we can grow only a few firs and spruces. They give us our Christmas trees and lend a touch of the North to southern landscapes. Native pines and "cedars" (Juniperus virginiana) and hemlocks cheer up southern forests in winter. Arborvitaes, creeping junipers, cedars of Lebanon, and many small Conifers combine with the broadleaf evergreens to enrich landscapes below Mason and Dixon's line. If your landscape loses its conifers, you will have a dull place indeed. Now is the time to plant them and brighten things up. If there is room, a group of any of the native pines will grow quickly from seedlings into bushy young trees, if they are planted in the open. Watching them grow up is a delightful experience. In full sun, they are likely to develop into large, spreading bush shapes and will remain that way up to twenty years before losing their lower branches.
Podocarpuses are such handsome evergreens that one wonders why they have not been more widely planted in the Middle and Upper South. Here, they take the place of the true yews (Taxus) which do not always take kindly to our heat and drought. Except in very cool shade we cannot grow English yew, that wood that supplied Edward III with the bows and arrows to defeat the French at Crécy. But podocarpuses and the upright plum yew (Cephalotaxus) resemble them enough to lend an Anglo-Saxon touch to the landscape.
Open days in January are good times to prune the tangles of shrubs which have grown too thick with old and dead wood. Don't give spireas a haircut. Go over them and remove all of the dead canes and the dead parts of otherwise healthy canes. Every little piece of live wood will bloom when spring comes. The shrubs can be cut back drastically just after they flower, but everything alive that is cut off now is full of flower buds. Gardeners either let spireas get to their full size and development by pruning out only the dead wood, or they cut the bushes back right to the ground, or near it, every year in order to have somewhat smaller specimens with heavily flowered branches. In especially small places, spireas of all kinds can be maintained like this and kept good looking and healthy. If you need large cascades of white bloom, however, plant Spiraea vanhouttei, feed it well, and let it get as large as it will. Everybody knows this old, spreading bridal wreath that makes large fountains of white arching sprays better than any other one. It blooms with the old-fashioned white iris, blue flags, and Darwin tulips. For a change, get some pink 'Clara Butt' tulips and some other kinds that are not red and plant them next fall in this color scheme. The old red Darwin 'Farnecombe Sanders' has become too common with these other plants. 'City of Haarlem' is a beautiful, intense tulip that goes well with spireas and irises and is a bit different from the shade of red usually seen with them. 'Due van Thol' tulips in shades of yellow are also good with this combination.
There is hardly a more useful group of spring-flowering shrubs than the spireas. After the early, delicate-flowered S. thunbergii blooms, and overlapping with it, comes the upright and fairly tall bridal wreath S. prunifolia, with its tiny double "roses." It is a mistake to try to make this tallish shrub into a rounded, short one. It will steadily send up more and more long wands that have to be cut off. It is best used at the back of shrubbery plantings or in some place where there is a narrow area in need of an early flowering, upright shrub.
S. thunbergii is a never-failing source of delight when it blooms with its wisps of tiny blossoms at daffodil time. The red or pink flowering quinces bloom at the same time and make a fine color combination during that cold, early time in the spring garden. The newer flowering quinces are now easier to get at our southern nurseries than they used to be. Everyone should investigate them because the quinces are tough shrubs that provide us with a long season of bloom. Some of the new ones come in salmon shades, and there are many different reds and pinks. There is a white form, too, that is just about the most beautiful of the more common shrubs with white flowers.
It is ridiculous to prune the quinces now, for they are just before bursting into bloom. In warm winters, they may start in January. Wait till they finish blooming. Their leaves will be out, but pruning them will not be harmful. Quinces can be shaped into a hedge, into large masses of flowering shrubs, or into more or less flat shrubs where they are up against buildings. There is nothing more glorious, however, than great tall masses of quince in the corners and backgrounds of gardens. The birds like to nest in them because the twigs are so thick that they provide a good hiding place from hawks and cats. If your quinces get scale, spray them with a dormant spray of either a miscible oil or lime sulphur. This spray should go on soon.
Of course, you will not prune your forsythias now because you can see the buds getting ready to open. Cut sprays are easy to force in water in the house. Underneath the tangled edges of the spreading varieties, the tips take root and make little new plants. These can be taken up and moved right now, and they will grow into large shrubs right away. With a small amount of work they can be espaliered against a wall. The branches do not tug at their supports like those of pyracanthas and other heavy shrubs. The only disadvantage is that the new growth has to be tied up and pruned back as the summer comes on because they keep on with lusty growth right into July!
The early daffodils are already up and in bud. To hurry a few along, put a box over them with a pane of glass in place of the bottom and keep them well watered. Daffodils of all kinds will actually develop into larger flowers after they are cut and put into water in the house than they will if they are left growing in the garden. That is one reason why they look so large in the shows. As soon as the little paper covering on each bud is split and the flower just ready to open, the buds can be cut and put in a cool room in indirect light. Here they will keep and can be held back and a few at a time brought into warmth and light to flower.
This is the time of the year to sit down and plan color schemes for garden and grounds. If you dislike orange red quinces blooming with magenta redbuds, it is usually easier to move the quinces than the redbuds. In some gardens, there are enough flowering cherries of different shades of pink to tone down these two. White will help, too.
Gardens that are a hodgepodge of color that cannot be changed all at once can be gradually transformed by the removal of the worst offenders and the addition of plants of another color. Since there are endless beautiful color schemes that one can establish with the plants already in the landscape, it will pay to make a really serious study of what is there. Often the removal of a single bush will leave a pleasing picture. Just as often, there are several good combinations that can be achieved by the addition of new plants.
Flowering bulbs can often add exactly the color needed with a group of shrubs or perennials. A few hyacinths, here and there, are easily inserted, or a low mat of hyacinths can be planted at the foot of taller plants to make a rug of color. The daffodil 'Thalia' (Narcissus triandrus) flowers with redbuds just before the dogwoods take over. White masses of this tough, two-flowered daffodil can pull together a garden of many disparate colors in redbud time.
The purple-leaf plums that are so popular in the South never seem to have a real place in the scheme. Light pink is one of the colors that sets off this red violet foliage that by itself lacks vibrancy. White makes it positively colorful. Since the plum foliage is in its brightest stages all through the spring, a series of flowers from early spireas to roses can be planted where they will be seen with the plums.
The English like to put together combinations in their summer perennial gardens with the improved smoke bush (Cotinus). There are several violet cultivars of this foliage plant both in England and in this country. At the Cambridge Botanical Garden, which I visited last July, it was very effective planted behind perennials. Grey- and silvery-leaved plants like the artemisias are good with it, and pink is delightful with its purple foliage. In other places it was planted right in the perennial beds. One garden had pink roses in bloom with it, and the bed was faced down with the gray edger santolina spilling over a wall.
Once you get the color-scheme fever, you will go around looking at gardens everywhere with a new awareness of color. Good color schemes are restful. Mixtures are usually ineffective or boring. Discover your own color schemes, beginning with what you already have that is now ineffective and can be moved to combine well with something else.
Those beautiful "garden rugs" you see in oriental-rug stores are not covered with fanciful designs as you might think; the gardens on them are stylized representations of real gardens.
Hidden behind the mud walls of the houses in modern Iran are beautiful little gardens crowded with the many kinds of trees and shrubs and flowers we see on their rugs. We shouldn't be surprised to find this flora so familiar to us because daffodils, pinks, tulips, irises, grapes, peaches, plums, quinces, cypresses, willows, poplars, and many other flowers, trees, and shrubs that we grow are either wild or cultivated in Iran.
Most of Iran is a hot, dry plain. Houses and gardens are protected from the heat and drying winds by high mud walls. Water is scarcer than oil! Traveling through the heat, the Persian has always dreamt of the shade and coolness of his garden—so much so that his very word for a habitation, bagh, means garden. The setting of much of the beautiful poetry of Persia has been a garden:
If there is a paradise on the face of the earth, It is this, it is this, it is this.
Each Persian-garden rug is a pictorial map of a garden. There is usually a long channel of water (shown with stylized waves) down the middle of the rug with another channel across it, making a big cross. Paths run beside the water with small flowers growing in them. In the rectangles formed by the channels are big beds or areas of flowers—each one sometimes divided into smaller gardens—in which peacocks strut and nightingales sing. The nightingale is an Eastern symbol of love.
The trees in these gardens are cypresses (symbol of the future or of everlasting life, like our Christmas tree), willows, poplars, ashes, junipers, beeches, elms, maples, oaks, and walnuts. Vines are often shown climbing the trees and running around the edge of the rug.
For centuries, Persia had traffic with both China and Egypt. Chinese and Egyptian lotuses and Chinese willows and peaches came to be cultivated in Persia—the peach tree so intensively that European botanists, believing it to be Persian, named this Chinese native Prunus persica.
It is a happy thing that modern Persian rugs have started to copy some of the ancient garden designs of the old ones. Look in the window of an oriental-rug store, and you may see a Persian garden.
Excerpted from Southern Gardens, Southern Gardening by William Lanier Hunt. Copyright © 1982 William Lanier Hunt. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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