why some books make us better gardeners


When I first moved to Charleston more than 30 years ago, I didn’t know the difference between a camellia and a fig tree. To remedy my profound horticultural ignorance, I started reading my way through the gardening section of the Charleston County Public Library.

At first my choices were eclectic and random, but soon I discovered that, like learning to appreciate good literature, one needs to read some really bad stuff in order to recognize quality. One-size-fits-all advice can mislead or confuse a novice Charleston gardener.

Now, when asked about my private collection favorites, I always begin with Landscape Plants for the Southeast by Wade T. Batson (University of South Carolina Press, 1984) and A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina by Richard Porcher (University of South Carolina Press, 2002). For those who prefer to learn only about specific Lowcountry indigenous flora, USC Press is about to release an expanded edition of Porcher’s 1995 book, Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry and Lower Pee Dee. Currently out of print, the new book will eventually complement a publicly accessible digital wildflower network with over 1,000 photographs.

Why recommend native plant identification books to home gardeners? Aside from the thrill of learning that those white lilies (Zephyranthes atamasco) growing along old highways in late March and April are called Naked Ladies, successful gardening requires an appreciation of a plant’s environmental requirements. (Anyone who’s ever tried to coax a plant to grow in a place where it refuses to thrive catches on to this.)

This botanical fact also applies to nonnatives. The problem is that it’s often difficult to grasp the realities of Charleston’s high heat and humidity, especially for those who come from another climate. Instead of throwing in the trowel, I recommend consulting Armitage’s Manual of Annuals, Biennials, and Half-Hardy Perennials (Timber Press, 2001). The trial gardens of Allan Armitage, a renowned horticulturalist, are among the finest in the country.

Folks convinced there’s no plant on earth they can’t kill should purchase a few air plants. Contrary to popular belief, epiphytes are not invasive. (As a child in Indiana, I caused a neighborhood uproar because I hung Spanish moss on a maple tree limb.) Until recently, most published information about air plants was strictly academic and overwhelmingly scientific. But thanks to my weekly perusals of new gardening books at the library, I discovered Air Plants: The Curious World of Tillandsias by Zenaida Sengo (Timber Press, 2014). This kind of publication sends me running to the bookstore for my own copy.

Air Plants is delightfully organized and thorough. In addition to the useful “Quick Guide,” the index makes it easy to find detailed facts on nearly 100 epiphytes. An abundance of exceptional photographs offer ideas on how to display or arrange them.

Armchair gardeners with an interest in Southern architecture and history might enjoy E.T.H. Shaffer’s classic Carolina Gardens, first published in 1963 by the University of North Carolina Press. Charlestonian DuBose Heyward wrote the foreword. Carry the book in the car when exploring the Carolinas. Shaffer’s descriptions are much more entertaining than commentaries found on the internet.

Although too cumbersome to haul around on a road trip, the newly updated and expanded Seeking Eden: A Collection of Georgia’s Historic Gardens by Staci L. Catron and Mary Ann Eaddy (University of Georgia Press, 2018), is an exquisite narrative on nearly 30 of the Peach State’s public and private landscapes. Readers familiar only with downtown Savannah’s mid-18th-century gardens will be surprised to discover that there are others of equal architectural and horticultural importance nearby.

Seeking Eden contains breathtaking photographs of 25 Georgian gardens—from coastal Savannah up through Atlanta and beyond to the Barnsley Gardens in Adairsville, but it’s the individual historic narrative about each property that makes this book a gem. This is no boring history book, and regardless of its cumbersome size, it deserves to be read from cover to cover.

PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.

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