Guest Rants, Ministry of Controversy

Arrested Development

Aspidistra image courtesy of Shutterstock

Aspidistra image courtesy of Shutterstock

It’s a term that might best describe gardening in the South. It might best describe all things Southern, come to think of it … but that’s a topic for another blog.

By arrested development, I mean that moment in time when forward movement and evolution stop. Just stop.

In the South, the evolution of any discernible style in gardening just stopped when the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. The port protected by that fort, like others in the region, was host to many ships bringing the hottest new things to an enthusiastic and resource-heavy citizenry that was trying to establish itself among the world’s old money elite as something more than wealthy backwater yahoos. The finest chachkas and the grandest doodahs of the day were flaunted hard and flaunted fast and all things décor and entertaining were top of the list—including, of course, anything for the garden.

A wealthy planter’s wife with lots of money and even more free labor could establish her station by the garden she made. The style of the day was all about the classics—symmetrical allees of gloomy oaks and fastidious clipped parterres of tight boxwood and carved stone replicas of Greek and Roman sculptures found a discordant home in the hostile Southern wilderness.

Any hope of the Southern garden evolving into a new vernacular depended on those ships coming to port. The opening of the far East to commerce and trade had allowed for curiosity-collecting plant hunters to ravage the mountains and forests of China, Japan, India and Indochina. These exotic plants, having a hard time surviving in Europe’s brisk climate, made their way to the hot south. Azaleas, Camellias, Gardenias, Hydrangeas, Wisteria and Confederate jasmine—and a hundred other new plants—were quickly consumed by hungry enthusiasts and soon every garden in the South was filled with Asia.

Then the shot was fired, the ships quit coming, and the South went to hell, along with its gardens. Fast forward through decades of financial desperation, the reconstruction, the depression and a general regional malaise that lasted about a hundred years, and we find that those Asian plants are still synonymous with the Old South.

The ships never came back, the money ran out and gardens built in those dark ages were largely replicas of the ones created in Better Times. The backyard breeders and local nurserymen just kept making new Camellias, Azaleas, Hydrangeas, et al. so that by the mid-20th century, there were now literally hundreds of cultivars of the same old plants getting jammed into every corner of the yard in every Sparta and Decatur of the old Confederacy.

Then, like a very-hung-over Phoenix rising from the ashes, the South, with the help of cheap land and central air conditioning stumbled into a boom. Cities replaced cow towns and suburbs replaced cotton fields and gardening was on again—only this time it was called “landscaping”. And the landscapers needed plants, lots of them. So the hunt for new plants was on again. There was money to be made in bushes and soon nurseries growing crepe myrtles, junipers and Bradford pears sprang up all over the exurbs. Ag school professors and nurserymen with lots of sky miles were on the push for newer plants for a hungry audience and newer ways to make money selling those plants through patenting and mass production.

And then arrested development. It turns out that those suburbs raging into the wilderness were built on fake money, and the last decade has seen a total collapse of spending on anything related to real estate—houses included, but gardens, certainly. The nursery industry has all but collapsed and the dark ages of Southern gardening have returned … So it was with great interest and keen enthusiasm that I attended a revival of the Southern Nursery Association trade show recently near Atlanta’s airport. A nice conference facility with running water and pricey parking was host to the event, which included a magnificent lineup of speakers.

The roster included the past greats of the Southern nursery world – names I won’t mention, but ones you’ve heard. They were all white men, likely heterosexual, mostly past 50 and—with a few exceptions—well published. And I’m disheartened to say that they fully represented the span and depth of the nursery industry’s demographic in our area.

It is notable to mention that Flora Grubb was not in attendance. It is also notable to mention that a prayer—to Jesus—was offered before lunch was served. It is probably not notable to mention that the seasonal salad was surprisingly good for a conference facility. So here are the big greats of the industry with their thousands of years of combined wisdom and research, ready to offer up solutions to the troubles we find ourselves in. How does the green industry respond to the downturned economy? How do we as designers find the plants we need in order to be current with trends in design? How do the plants being curated for nurseries adapt to the obvious changes in climate? How do we respond to our younger, more urbane customer base? What about edibles? What about natives? What do we do now?

The answer—Aspidistra
“Here is a slide of one Bob and I collected in Japan. It has little spots on it. This one came from the same nursery: no spots. This is one I’m calling ‘Enchanted Geisha’. The flowers are under the ground!” Ok.
The next answer—more Hydrangeas!
“Through many weeks of selecting, we have come up with an all-summer blooming variety that can be propagated by cloning in a matter of days and will max out at a height just under the required limit for metal shelves at Lowes. It is pink. We have a blue one in the works and a red one and a purple one coming along. The one that’s ready for release is called ‘AHjyn40-2’. Trade name—Enchanted Geisha™.”
Of course the patent adds a price to the plant that is absorbed by the grower who is already deciding between cat food and ramen noodles and the retailer who is paying more for plants that are considerably harder to sell. At the three remaining independent retail nurseries left in the state of Georgia, the prices haven’t increased since 1989.

At the end of the twelve-hour long, fifteen-hundred-slide symposium, fourteen women, six Hispanics, three gays and one random black chick all gathered for conference coffee in the back of the hall and stood, shell struck and frazzled with swollen eyelids, uttering quiet syllables of exasperation.

This is the response by our leaders, elders and noble men of merit to a crisis that has consumed the livelihoods of many of us—just go back to what we were doing in Better Times. Never mind that those of us who are not ready for retirement are hoping for a viable future in an industry that must evolve in changing times.

The trade show market that followed the speakers was a mere phantom of its formal self, and was highlighted, at least for me, by a sign in the booth of a plant grower from Mississippi saying simply: “Surviving Obama!”.

Really? Give us another hundred years. We’ll figure it out eventually.

Posted by David mcMullin on August 26, 2013 at 7:39 am, in the category Guest Rants, Ministry of Controversy.

13 responses to “Arrested Development”

  1. Laura Bell says:

    Much as I love the South (born & raised there), I have to agree with your assessment. Though I bristled at the beginning of what I felt was sure to be yet another hit piece against my beloved homeland, it’s impossible to deny the truth of what you say. The South is stuck in time, certain that if we all just get back to Reagan (or at the very least, one of those nice Bush boys) & Jesus & Jack Daniels & some nice azaleas, those Better Times will return. It’s not for lack of effort on some folks’ part. There are native plant gardens & nurseries and gardeners who support them. There are those who defy convention & grow with enthusiasm the non-traditional plants, especially those that are native, but increasingly scarce in the wild. Frankly, I think that “landscapers” are the people sticking with tried-and-true – hydrangeas, crape myrtles, azaleas. magnolias – but “gardeners” in the South are always on the lookout for something new, something no one else has. Unfortunately, the allure of cool, dry air produced by central a/c run with (somewhat) cheap power from TVA is too powerful for many to venture outdoors.

  2. anne says:

    Sounds like a great opportunity for someone.

  3. Allen Bush says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. I live near the Ohio River, and that qualifies as southern by a mere one-half mile. (Hello Indiana!) I agree with your argument to some extent. There still is a desire, in Kentucky, for formal gardens and anything that looks English, and has some boxwoods. But home gardens have branched-out in the last 50 years far beyond boxwoods, Foster hollies, a dogwood or two and a red maple. It’s true, the vast majority of home landscapes are still perfectly humdrum, but Elizabeth Lawrence, J.C. Raulston, Nancy Goodwin, Edith Eddelman, Pam Harper, Tony Avent, Allan Armitage and Mike Dirr have left an indelible mark. The list goes on. Disciples are everywhere, flailing around trying to woo converts. It’s tedious stuff and few have time for proselytizing when there are weeds to pull.

    • Frank Hyman says:

      Reporting from North Carolina: You took the words out of my mouth. All those growers/gardeners and others have been broadening the pallet, but there’s still a long way to go.

  4. William says:

    ugh! Not another dish the South rant… But what about … uhhh…what about….Damn! David’s got it pretty much right!
    Well, by half way through I was standing and cheering – and feeling a bit embarassed, I guess. It’s a rant, after all, and a much needed one. I like the comments, especially Susan who asked for some positive suggestions and descriptions (and checking out David’s site, it’s obvious he’s bound to have some); and Laura, who urged a little acknowledgment of the contributions for grass roots (sorry! poor term) Southern gardeners defying commercial trends; and Allen, who reminds us of significant efforts and achievements from some Southern gardening leaders in spite of a general failure of leadership. I’d really love to hear more from David – and from some other members of that estranged coterie at the back of the hall at the SNA convention.

  5. Les says:

    Wow, reading this I felt is if I was right there in the conference hall staring at the multi-patterned carpet waiting for lunch to begin.

  6. Well, bless your heart David. I’ve heard talk that a new color of the Stella de Boro daylily is available. That’s not enough for you? You want more?

    Perhaps you need to get out of Atlanta for a bit and go some where less stuck in the Southern traditions. Take a little drive and come to the West Asheville Garden Stroll on September 14th. I promise you will see some answers and innovation for things like, “How do we respond to our younger, more urbane customer base? What about edibles? What about natives?” There could be some design ideas that might blow you away. It will definitely be better and more diverse than a stuffy conference near the airport. and

  7. Katie D says:

    I have to agree with Christopher C NC – come to the mountains for the West Asheville Garden Stroll (WAGS)! You want natives, edibles, sustainable, guerrilla gardening – we’ve got it. We are developing a vibrant gardening style that includes all of the above and personal statements with art, working to make our gardens our living spaces, not static showpieces.

  8. Susan says:

    Well, that was depressing. And from the sounds of it, that HAS pretty much been the South’s response to changing conditions for the last 150 years. Ah, call back yesterday……..

  9. Chas, says:

    Is this a problem peculiar to the South? I have lived in the South for a good twenty years, but occasionally venture north and aren’t things as mass-produced up there? Luckily here in the NC Triangle there are a lot of adventuresome gardeners, a legacy of JC Raulston.

  10. Laurel says:

    Perhaps if you ventured out away from the big city and explored the south’s small, independent garden shops and growers you find an AMAZING variety of plant materials. The big box shops think they are providing what serious and learning gardeners want, but oh, how they are mistaken. Real gardeners, and there are many more of them than big box recognizes, want plant variety and native species, as well as interesting and different seed selections. Most house plants – called tropicals in the biz – are thrown out to make room as new shipments arrive – never put on sale or even composted – solely there to make the greenhouse look stocked.

  11. david says:

    Thanks for the heartening comments everyone. I do travel quite a bit and am aware that the horticultural scene is just much more fully fleshed in other parts of the country – particularly when it comes to design and style.
    In the south we are still planting in the same style that became standard in the 1980’s – mostly broad leaf evergreens within a very heavy-handed stone hardscape.
    As we see from the amazing work being done by designers like Piet Oudolf in public spaces across the country and the trend towards more herbaceous plants and grasses, green roofs, living walls, site-interpreted design, use of more contemporary materials like steel, etc., the rest of the gardening world has passed us by here in the south.
    I tend to mostly blame landscape architects who are poorly trained in plant material and poorly educated in other areas of art and design and our regional nursery industry that fetishizes plant patenting and “dumbing down” of the plant palette to better suit those professionals who really, ultimately, know very little about the work they do.
    (A conversation I had some years ago with a local perennial wholesaler…
    Me – hey, I really love Artemisia ‘Huntington Gardens’. Would you consider growing it?
    Him – “We already have FOUR silver foliaged plants in the nursery and are trying to get down to just ONE that everybody can use! Why would we want to add one more?”)
    Local growers who focus on good, garden-worthy plants meet only disdain and sneers from the industry elite.
    I’m the biggest fan of independent growers and retailers who are thoughtful, selective and passionate about the plants they grow and sell and I long for an industry that places these folks at the top of the hierarchy and works hard to support a broader vision and bridge the gap between the nursery and the buying public.

  12. Barrie Collins says:

    Dear Mr. McMullen,

    I realize much of what goes on at Gardenrant is meant to stir healthy discussion. This article and your experiences at the Southern Nursery Association are not representative of an entire region of gardeners. What you did was take some examples and some history and generalized about an entire population. This is stereotyping and offensive…for I hope obvious reasons since we discuss the South.

    There are many forward thinking gardeners in the south, and Goodness Grows as one example is without question one of the finest nurseries in America…in Georgia. There are many designers, nurseries, and landscape architects who care deeply about responsibilty to the land…and if some also like camellias this is no indictment.

    What happened in Atlanta real estate is shameful, but there are growing numbers who plant bluestem as well. The issue is not the lack of progress you lament. i understand and agree and applaud. The issue is that your thesis is innaccurate in that it is narrow in scope, the total human experience, and those who you do not know.

    1. The problems you address are not unique to the south.
    2. While the suburbs disappoint and the Southen Nursery Association seem relics to you, there are millions in America, not just the south, who are trying to live more responsibly.

    We are tribal, and us vs. them is hardcoded into our geneology. We must find away to educate without insulting those we hope to teach.

    B. Collins

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