Arrested Development

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.


    • Laura Bell
    • 22nd October 2016

    Much as I love the South (born & raised there), I have to agree with your assessment. Though I bristled at the beginning of what I felt was sure to be yet another hit piece against my beloved homeland, it’s impossible to deny the truth of what you say. The South is stuck in time, certain that if we all just get back to Reagan (or at the very least, one of those nice Bush boys) & Jesus & Jack Daniels & some nice azaleas, those Better Times will return. It’s not for lack of effort on some folks’ part. There are native plant gardens & nurseries and gardeners who support them. There are those who defy convention & grow with enthusiasm the non-traditional plants, especially those that are native, but increasingly scarce in the wild. Frankly, I think that “landscapers” are the people sticking with tried-and-true – hydrangeas, crape myrtles, azaleas. magnolias – but “gardeners” in the South are always on the lookout for something new, something no one else has. Unfortunately, the allure of cool, dry air produced by central a/c run with (somewhat) cheap power from TVA is too powerful for many to venture outdoors.

    • Allen Bush
    • 24th October 2016

    I really enjoyed this piece. I live near the Ohio River, and that qualifies as southern by a mere one-half mile. (Hello Indiana!) I agree with your argument to some extent. There still is a desire, in Kentucky, for formal gardens and anything that looks English, and has some boxwoods. But home gardens have branched-out in the last 50 years far beyond boxwoods, Foster hollies, a dogwood or two and a red maple. It’s true, the vast majority of home landscapes are still perfectly humdrum, but Elizabeth Lawrence, J.C. Raulston, Nancy Goodwin, Edith Eddelman, Pam Harper, Tony Avent, Allan Armitage and Mike Dirr have left an indelible mark. The list goes on. Disciples are everywhere, flailing around trying to woo converts. It’s tedious stuff and few have time for proselytizing when there are weeds to pull.

    • Frank Hyman
    • 13th November 2016

    Reporting from North Carolina: You took the words out of my mouth. All those growers/gardeners and others have been broadening the pallet, but there’s still a long way to go.

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