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Outstanding southern garden styles

by Timber Press on April 4, 2017

in Design, Gardening

Wild blue phlox, tiarella, and yellow corydalis usher the visitor to a shaded sitting spot. Photo by C. Colston Burrell.

These gardens exemplify the many ways that design can transform a garden from something merely pleasant into an extraordinary blend of plants, hardscape, and that elusive quality, “sense of place.”

Discussions of general design principles are all well and good, but seeing them put into practice in actual gardens drives home the realization that good design matters—particularly when it accompanies a sensitivity to the unique qualities of a particular site.

A jewelbox garden

Montrose, the garden of Nancy and Craufurd Goodwin in Hillsborough, North Carolina, is a showcase for interesting plants used in creative ways. Offering a variety of habitats on a spacious site, it accommodates woodland gems like cardiocrinums, formal features such as the undulating, 19th-century boxwood hedges, and scores of sun-loving plants that thrive in the North Carolina heat and humidity.

Among the most stunning achievements at Montrose are the color-themed gardens, which blend heat-tolerant annuals, perennials, bulbs, and shrubs into a dazzling tapestry. Here, the orange-and-purple garden is framed by the gothic arch of the shade house; coreopsis, gomphrenas, setcreaseas, ornamental grasses, and cannas romp in the foreground. Photo by Ken Druse.

Especially notable are Nancy’s color-themed gardens, which concentrate bursts of vivid color in relatively confined areas. The orange and purple garden is a riot of hot hues fearlessly deployed, while the blue and yellow garden deftly juxtaposes these two gentler colors. In both cases, tender perennials and annuals contribute mightily to the length of the display and the ultimate success of the plantings. Also noteworthy are the garden’s displays of winter-blooming plants, especially cyclamen and snowdrops. Guided tours are available from September to May by appointment; go to the website for more information.

Woodland wonder

In a southeastern garden, the cooling effect of mature deciduous trees is an asset to be cherished—not to mention the fact that deciduous hardwood forest is the default setting, so to speak, for much of the South.

The blue-and-yellow garden at Montrose, with its masses of salvias and asters, forms a cool and sparkling counterpart to the orange-and-purple garden. Photo by Ken Druse.

Although woodland gardening means forgoing exclusively sun-loving plants, stunning effects can be achieved with a palette of shade-loving native plants and their noninvasive Asian counterparts. This is nowhere more evident than in C. Colston Burrell’s Virginia garden. Burrell, a lecturer, garden designer, writer, and photographer, is the principal of Native Landscape Design and Restoration, and his work shows a finely tuned sensitivity to the role of native plants in the landscape—although he readily admits to using and collecting what he calls “the best plants of the global garden.” His 10-acre garden, Bird Hill, encompasses meadows as well as woodland, although shade plantings dominate near the house.

The bright blossoms of primulas, native bleeding hearts, trilliums, and Virginia bluebells take center stage before ferns and other foliage plants take over. Photo by C. Colston Burrell.

Here, Burrell has employed circular spaces inspired by the Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen, and filled them with a rich tapestry of ferns, bulbs, wildflowers, shrubs, and flowering trees. Seeing what Burrell has accomplished, it’s clear that woodland conditions are compatible with the highest goals of garden design.

An air of formality

With so many cities rich in historic architecture, the Southeast has a strong tradition of formal garden design. This is particularly apparent in Charleston, South Carolina, where the gardening legacy of the 17th and 18th centuries got a big boost from Loutrel Briggs (1893–1977), a New York–born landscape architect who worked in Charleston for 40 years.

This central terrace shaded by an enormous live oak is almost tropical in its lushness and bright color. Photo by Marion Brenner.

Briggs felt it was important to create gardens that were in harmony with their spatial and architectural surroundings, and the result was the formality so in evidence today in the historic district. Patti and Peter McGee inherited the framework of a Briggs landscape when they began their former garden in Charleston’s Ansonborough neighborhood.

Axial paths and clipped boxwoods reflect Loutrel Briggs’s lingering influence. Photo by Marion Brenner.

Rather than hewing to a strictly formal planting scheme, Patti chose to introduce a note of lushness and exuberant color by planting flowering shrubs and vines and using an abundance of potted specimens like clivias and begonias. The result was spectacular: burgeoning plants within a crisp, classically proportioned hardscape—proof, if any were needed, that the formal style can easily accommodate the passions of a plant-loving gardener.


Mark Weathington spreads the word about these great plants in dozens of lectures a year, articles in most major gardening magazines, and a weekly newspaper column. He is the Director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University.


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