By 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

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).

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.

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 Licata