Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mastering the Art of Southern Gardening

Have you ever been to a Whole Foods grocery store? If you have, then you know that they have managed to turn a tedious errand into a sensory experience. Everything they have, I want.

They somehow meticulously stack every fruit and vegetable known to man in such a way that even collard greens look cosmopolitan. The fish and shrimp all look like they were pulled from oceans and streams only moments ago. And I can't leave without at least one cookie or another treat from their bakery.

What I'm basically saying is that if they want to offer truth in advertising, they will change their name immediately to Whole Paycheck.

Just to be clear on what happens when I shop here:
  • I never go in with a plan or recipe
  • I am usually hungry when I go
  • I wander up and down each aisle, salivating at all of the choices and putting things in my cart
  • I go through a second time and put back half
  • I get home and have the most beautiful assortment of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and assorted treats
And I realize that they make, well.....nothing. And as a result, much of it goes to waste before I figure out what to make with it.

Without a recipe to follow, I'm essentially lost. I am not one of those people that opens the fridge, sees a mix of ingredients and magically whips up a world-class dinner. I am a recipe-follower. I need guidance the first few times I make a dish- and only then am I able to improvise with the ingredients.

So what does this have to do with mastering the art of southern gardening?

When many people go to the garden center, I see a similar scenario unfolding:
  • They go in without a plan or design
  • They are usually hungry when they go (commonly called "Spring Fever")
  • They wander up and down each aisle, salivating at all of the choices and putting things in their cart
  • They go through a second time and put back half
  • They get home and have the most beautiful assortment of annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs and other assorted treats
And they realize that while each plant is an eye-catcher, they don't make a garden. And the plants don't get planted that day so they stay in their pots. Often, they don't get planted at all and they end up like my poor, unused vegetables.

Think about a seasoned chef like Julia Child. Every dish that Julia made- no matter how improvised- was rooted in a recipe she had done before. She knew which herbs complimented which meats and which cheeses would overpower a dish and the basic ingredient proportions for baking cakes.
When she first tackled French cuisine, she followed the recipes. And even when she had mastered French cooking, she didn't alter the bones of the recipe much.

Gardening is no different. Gardeners talk about the "bones of a garden" all of the time. In the south, our gardens are often anchored and defined by evergreens- A sidewalk lined with Liriope, a hedge of boxwood or a holly at the corner of the house. Walkways, patios and other "hardscapes" are also part of this garden foundation.

The garden pictured below work is effective and it only has one type of plant. The low boxwood hedge and brickwork provide the structure needed (think walls).

The area between the hedge and the building would be the perfect spot for a medley of perennials like Black-Eyed Susan, Salvia, Plumbago and Iris (think artwork on the walls).

What makes this corner good is that even without the "artwork," it is attractive. In other words, it has good bones.
Once we have established the foundation of a landscape, we can change the seasonings with perennials and annuals- those plants that wink at you when you are at the garden center.

Now imagine that same mixture of perennials in the middle of a flower bed with no structure or definition. Would it look like a plant stew?

As you develop your palate (or really palette), you will naturally become more daring with the designs you create. That is when gardening becomes truly fun.

I've been cooking regularly for about a year now and I'm good enough to have a few friends over for some satisfying meals. Mostly, I make simple, effective dishes with 4-5 ingredients. I'm sure as I get more confident, I will expand my repertoire .

The gardening equivalent would be starting with mixed container gardens by the front door- simple, yet wholly satisfying. Then as you succeed, expand.

Before you go to the garden center next time, identify an area you want to plant and the types of plants you'll need for that area.

And please,
do as I say and not as I do......and make a list of the ingredients you'll need.


  1. Super post! I started my garden backwards, with the frills and flowers and then realized it needed structure. Definitely learned by trial and error. I should have read this many years ago. The question is: would I have followed your advice? Am loving your blog.

  2. Great analogy between Whole Paycheck and the garden center customer in spring. Keep cooking and, in a few years, you'll be able to turn those Whole Foods finds into wonderful dishes!



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