Ministry Of Controversy

Arrested Development

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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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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