Shut Up and Dig

Gardening easy in the South? Not so much.

from contributing Ranter Allan Armitage.

I wrote these thoughts after I had been in the South for nearly 10 years, but particularly after I heard for about the 10th time from people in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and elsewhere: “How I envy you, it must be so much easier gardening in the South”.
—-Excerpted from Herbaceous Perennials Plants

Armitage_with_hat_serious_2

Many species are cultivated in both Montreal, Canada, and Athens, Georgia, areas characterized, respectively, as far North and deep South. I have gardened in both places—as well as in East Lansing, Michigan—and traveled with open eyes throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Mideast, South Africa and much of Europe.

No absolute demarcation exists where North ends and South begins, but when I speak, I refer to the South as zones 7-10 of the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. Zone 7 (minimum 0-10 F) ranges as far north as Rhode Island, into Virginia, and cuts across Tennessee, Arkansas, central Oklahoma, central Texas, southern New Mexico, and into Arizona and California. Many climatic factors interact with the plants’ ability to thrive or languish in a given zone, and hardiness ratings must be treated cautiously (a subject for another time).

Florida
Typical in Florida (Eliz’s photo)

Several differences are obvious between plants of the same species grown in Northern and Southern locales. In the South, temperate zone plants flower earlier, are taller and may have weaker stems due to the accumulated heat. Tall forms tend to collapse without support and dwarf selections are usually more effective in the southern garden. Fertilizer need not be applied as generously in the South as in the North, particularly on tall cultivars, as additional growth is not the goal. Lanky, leggy growth occurs at the expense of flower production if too much nitrogen is applied. This happens regardless of latitude, but is more prominent in the South. The lack of snow is a major detriment to overwintering perennials anywhere. Snow provides insulation from the cold and plants tucked beneath the protective eiderdown survive cold winters well. That is why my friends in the Gaspe’ of Quebec (zone 3) claim that gardening is so easy there.

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Typical in Buffalo (Eliz’s photo)

Where rain replaces snow (as in the South), the major survival problem is inadequate drainage. This is particularly true on heavy clay where cold winter rains result in soggy, water-logged soils and roots, crowns, and bulbs are immersed in free-standing water. Rot organisms proliferate and plants disappear, not because of lack of cold hardiness but because they rotted in the ground. Summer temperatures and humidity in the South are also detriments to perenniality. Plants not adapted to the South often perform poorly because of high night temperatures, which significantly affects the rate of plant respiration. When night temperatures remain above 70F the process of respiration continues unabated and competes more aggressively for the carbohydrates produced during the day by photosynthesis. This results in lack of stored carbohydrates, inhibition of chlorophyll synthesis, and lack of secondary cell wall formation. The consequence is reduced vigor, weak stunted plants and small foliage. Species not capable of acclimatization cannot store the reserves necessary to survive the winter. In many cases, death is due not to lack of winter hardiness, but lack of summer tolerance. Many problems may be minimized with fall planting, allowing plants time to build starch reserves and develop an extensive root system prior to the onset of winter. Fall planting is more critical in the South than the North for most temperate species.

Given all the problems associated with gardening in the South, one would believe that I think Southern gardening is more difficult than northern gardening. I do! There is no doubt that gardening is far more challenging. More challenging, but equally wonderful. I have gardened in Athens for over twenty years now, and I think I am finally getting the hang of it.

Regardless of where one gardens, two things become self-evident. The first is that soil preparation is half the battle. The second has to do with the plants one selects. Choosing plants that are adapted to the site and climate makes more sense than constantly trying to grow plants that are doomed to failure within a year or two. This is not to say that we shouldn’t experiment with plant selection—half the fun of gardening is to try plants that “are not supposed to grow here”. But there are virtually endless species and cultivars hardy for your area to try—without trying to overwinter a plant native to the tropics.

Well, of course Allan loses me on that last line (I have a dozen colocasia resting in my basement as we speak!), but I found this essay on North and South very interesting. I had always envied Southern gardeners, without realizing what a struggle warm zone gardening could be.—Elizabeth

Posted by on December 4, 2008 at 7:53 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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23 Responses to “Gardening easy in the South? Not so much.”

  1. Fascinating piece! I always feel that my zone 4 to 5 climate is inhibiting. But maybe I’m lucky in my long winters. We certainly seem to have very few pest and disease problems–the cold winters tend to kill problems off.

    My friend who gardens in Atlanta, GA points out that her off-season is the summer, when it’s pointless to plant anything.

  2. susan harris says:

    Wonderful! Lesson learned, Dr. A.

  3. Anita says:

    I feel fortunate that the harsh winters here kill off lots of parasites and diseases. I worry less about getting the compost hot enough, and I do think the bitter cold/snow makes things “fresh” for spring. (Bonus: it also makes raising chickens easier.)

  4. I guess there are trials and tribulations in every area.
    Makes you appreciate your gardening work all that much more.

    Thanks for such a well written and informative article.

  5. Jean says:

    Amen to Allen’s sentiment about it being harder to garden in the South! Allen forgot to mention the plague of insects we also get (although I suppose Japanese beetles give northerners a run for their money). I used to call gardening in the south “macho gardening” until I went to Botswana and saw the owners of a lodge dealing with elephants in their vegetable garden. I guess that means we should be thankful for our own small challenges. :-)

  6. Gail says:

    Well said! It’s difficult gardening in the midsouth! It’s why I garden with well chosen exotics and plants native to cedar glades….they can take the wet winters, dry summers and the lack of snow cover!

  7. chuck b. says:

    The extent of gardener reliance (dependence?) on those USDA hardiness zones is unfortunate and I think it distorts horticultural perceptions. We don’t use those meager 10 zones in the west, and it’s too bad noone has re-zoned the rest of the country to account for other influences besides hardiness the way Sunset has for us.

    Thank you, Sunset!

  8. nandina says:

    Allan, as a northern grower retired to the south I share your frustration with southern growing. However, you are much too modest making no mention of the extensive hybridizing and trialing you are doing, resulting in new introductions for the southern garden. Your efforts are appreciated. Thanks!!

  9. Brie says:

    Amen. I love living in the south, but it has its real challenges (whoever mentioned that summer is the off-season is absolutely right…can barely breathe outside in August).

    Also, I too wish the sunset zone was used more often in plant reference. Lots of things are said to work in zone 9 that I KNOW don’t work in North Florida without lots of pampering, or no matter what you do.

    Being able to grow vegetables outside without protection most of the year is nice, though.

  10. Allen are you defining “difficult” as plant loss or death? In the realm of gardening, difficult can mean all kinds of things. Does the south include the tropical zone 11?

    For me the jury is still out. Is northern gardening more difficult than tropical gardening? In Hawaii I could fling things into a pile of rubbish and they would grow. Granted I wasn’t trying to grow tulips and even in import restricted Hawaii, the plant palette to choose from was immense.

    Now I am a northern zone 5 perched high above a southern zone 6/7 at 4000 foot elevation. It will take years to know what plants might be difficult here and in Hawaii I would know that within a single season.

    I still find the expiration and due dates for planting in the north a challenge coming from a gardening attitude of “whenever.”

  11. kim says:

    I grew up and learned to garden in North Florida, and I hear of my mother’s gardening trials as she still gardens there. While my (Maryland) growing season for summer things like tomatoes is shorter, I don’t have near the pest problems my mother does. Fire ants don’t decimate my vegetables and the majority of my tomatoes aren’t “bug stung.” I can grow all kinds of perennials my mother can’t. My biggest gardening problem is the Asian Tiger Mosquito which bites all during the day from June until November. Give me my zone 7 garden any time!

  12. Thank you Allan! A great article to refer to gardeners from south of the Northland when they inevitably make some wisecrack to me about my assumed mastery of growing snow peas … and not much else.

    Snowbirds who land in Zones 8 and hotter are often surprised to find many of the trusted perennials they love don’t look like much the second half of their new, more lengthy season, if they cut it at all. I have to remember not to mention hostas or lilacs when I’m in Florida, Texas and the like, and that peonies are unthinkable.

    The list of perennials that look their best in bloom in Zones 3-4-5 is fairly lengthy, and for shrub lovers, gardening in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the northern elsewheres can mean stout, disease-free foliage and peak form. For lilac lovers, of course, you have to travel to their preferred Zone 4 (they need a damn cold winter) to begin to understand why lilacs in bloom are a part of so many childhood memories.

    So thanks for making us feel better. I’d still, however, trade my Bobcat for just one of those amazing Euphorbia varieties that grow in Zone 7!

  13. This was very interesting, and I found myself nodding throughout my reading of it. You didn’t even get around to the insects, or as I like to call them, d#@n bugs!~~Dee

  14. Denise says:

    Brilliant, Allan! Accolades from Zone 10.

  15. Rosella says:

    I loved this article! How interesting to realize that not all our gardening desires can be satisfied by moving to a warmer zone!

    I live and garden now in Virginia, Z-7, but for many years I gardened in the Tropic of Capricorn, 4 degrees south of the equator. I innocently assumed that I would be able to grow wonderful tomatoes there (heat + sun = tomatoes, no?), and ordered seeds. I planted them in the black volcanic soil of Java, staked the new plants with bamboo stakes, only to find that the plants died, while the stakes grew.

  16. Rosella, I am stealing your line, “the plants died, while the stakes grew.” Just wanted to let you know. Excellent.

  17. sarahammocks says:

    Great article! Like politics, all gardening is local. I live in VA in zone 7, which is either the northernmost point of the south, or the southernmost point of the north–depending on the plant and the gardening book, etc. This borderline status made more sense to me when I lived in Baltimore, also zone 7, which, during the Civil War was north of D.C, the union capitol, but had many southern sympathizers, including the mayor. The term “mid-Atlantic” doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of this region.

  18. Rosella says:

    Renegade Gardener, you are welcome to use that line — it appears to be a universal equatorial truth that one cannot grow tomatoes there, but stakes of whatever will grow.

    And Sarahammocks, you do not exaggerate the complexity of Virginia Z-7!

  19. I’ve lived in North Carolina all my life and found myself envious of gardens in the Pacific Northwest and the UK.

    That said, I’ve realized that it’s best (less expensive and less frustrating) to work with Mother Nature than against her, so I accept the fate of what I can and cannot grow here in the South.

    Of course, many of us have those deer friends who bring along their rabbit friends who bring along their squirrel friends…

    Cameron

  20. greg draiss says:

    I have seen beautiful old plantation gardens in Georgia with azaleas six feet tall etc….

    But the heat of the of the south in the summer is enough to keep me gardening up North.

    The (damn yankee) TROLL

  21. Hey, I grew up in Maryland and have spent the last 26 years in Alabama. You don’t need any map to tell you whether you live in the North or South. All you need to do is observe your neighbors. If they grow rhubarb, you’re a Northerner. If they grow okra, you’re a Southerner. If they offer you a slice of rhubarb-okra pie, do not accept.

    I totally disagree that gardening is harder in the South. Every region presents its challenges. For example, try Las Vegas in July. You don’t have to worry about root rot and powdery mildew! It never rains and the relative humidity is about 0. Of course, it’s also 112 degrees in the shade for weeks at a time, which is why most residents prefer to lose their virginity in a casino than their sanity in a garden.

    All one needs to do to succeed in gardening anywhere is look around at what grows with no care from you and make that the backbone of your garden. Choose plants adapted to your climate. Here in the Southeast, where summer means endless heat and humidity and winter is short and mild, we can’t grow lilac. But we can grow crepe myrtle, a vastly superior plant. All sorts of semi-tropical and tropical plants offer us spectacular flowers and foliage for months on end. Plus, we can have something blooming in the yard every month of the year. So I don’t cry about gardening in the South — unless it’s my turn to eat the rhubarb-okra pie.

  22. Yes, gardening in the south has its trials as I’ve found out the hard way. But as several people have mentioned, we can harvest wonderful produce all winter long. I appreciate the work that Dr. A and many others have been doing to develop cultivars and methods that work well in the south.

    Gardening here in northern Florida continues to be an adventure, which is why I titled my gardening log Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener.

  23. I’m here in the cedar glade areas
    of the Nashville basin in middle Tennessee, and believe me, the grass is truly greener on any other side from myself! I’m forever jealous of either lush tropicals a few hours to the south or lush lilacs and other winter loving plants to the north, once the one of a kind ecosystem here has been removed there’s not much but monkey grass and prickly pears left, you really have to work with the cedar glade type endemics to gain a good garden here- please check out my own non profit blog aimed at increasing awareness about the cedar glades.

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