Southern gardens are full of area's heritage, culture

February 16, 2006
LAWAINE STUBBLEFIELD - Victoria County Master Gardener
When I think of a true Southern garden, my mind naturally gravitates to my maternal grandmother and the beautiful garden she built and nurtured for many decades in Bellaire.
I realize now that she truly understood the concept of a Southern garden when I think of her long, wide beds full of perennials and shrubs with a graceful combination of order and wilderness. She always had a vegetable garden and compost pile to provide a constantly rich soil. Flowers were the love of her life, and there was always abundant color in her garden. Sprinkled in among the perennials you could find any number of exotic specimens flourishing despite being outside their natural element. These were plants that were given to her. She would somehow manage to find the right spot and knew just what to do to keep them pretty.
We could always find lots of critters there who shared the garden with her. There was a birdbath full of fresh water surrounded by maidenhair fern under the canopy of a large oak with a bird feeder hanging from its branches. Most mornings you could find cottontails and birds playing there or in the garden where she would plant extra food for her garden friends.

We do well to remember the heritage of our Southern garden. Much time and research has been spent on the history of architecture and those furnishings within. Although there is much recorded history of our agricultural heritage, it has not had the wealth of publicity as the buildings and furnishings it surrounds. A trip to the public library will find some very worthwhile reading of the subject. The University of Texas at Austin has a good documentation of historic gardens complete with photos and biographies of the owners.

There are many ways we can connect our gardens with the past. Restoration would involve in-depth research of the property, which may include original site plans, old letters and oral history from previous owners or neighbors. Re-creation of a particular style requires study of that cultural influence and heirloom plants that would have been used during that time.

Eclectic gardens are modern gardens that are sensitive to the architecture. They may reflect on garden heritage in their use of design and plant materials.

The heritage of a particular plant in your garden may have deep meaning for you personally.

A beautiful althea tree that is a result of a cutting given to me by my grandmother many years ago will be a legacy to the new owners of my house. But before I leave I will take a cutting with me for my new garden.

Consider the gardeners that came before you and the love given to the garden you have inherited. The culture of one garden influences another and gardeners are a sharing lot. What works for one is past to another.

The gardens of the South have had many cultural influences:

American Indian

American Indians trails connecting villages and waterways are now thoroughfares connecting cities and dams. Their first-hand knowledge of working the land for crops was a vital element in the survival of newcomers to the country, as well as their knowledge of native plants for food, medicine and in the making of dyes.


The culture of Spain was heavily influenced by Roman, Greek and Arab cultures, and so with the introduction of Spanish culture comes many influences. Many new plants that are considered native today were actually brought here from Spain. Their gardening style was to enclose the garden with plant material. Order was to be made of the wilderness. They accomplished this with the use of sectioned spaces within the garden. Walkways were made to connect these spaces and often a central water feature was the focal point. Covered walkways surrounding a courtyard or colonnade to and from a portico was the order of the day.


The French brought more formality with rows of trees and flowerbeds arranged in paths and patterns. They consciously tied the garden to the building it surrounded to make a unifying picture. The French were the masters of the box garden, creating geometric patterns to form a pleasing picture viewed from an elevated portico, or porch, with sheared boxwood or other low growing shrubs. To complete the picture they used specimen plants in pots in various focal areas of the garden as well as in the house itself.


Africans were expert vegetable gardeners who practiced any number of ingenious horticultural systems. They would plant root crops, vines and fruit trees all together to protect the soil from washing away in a heavy rain. By planting perennial crops and harvesting vegetables as needed, they economized their work in the garden. They would harvest flower seeds in the wild and bring them into the garden. Their front yards were full of a bright mix of colorful plants, sometimes planted in a random mix of individual specimens. Whatever was at hand became a possible future display of yard art. We attribute the custom of a welcoming, cheery front walk to the African culture.


The natural style of gardens with curved lines to follow the shape of the land was brought by the English. Many of our parks in America were shaped in this style. They also planted in a grid style with a central walk extending from the main hall of the house out into the garden, with secondary sidewalks and garden plots at intervening spaces. The English also introduced a new style for cemeteries that followed the natural style. Rows and paths followed the contours of the land, and the graves would also follow this pattern. This English approach to a natural garden is still very evident today with curved lines, massed plants and repeated color throughout the garden.


Germans established large farming areas and expanded greatly on the culinary use of many vegetables already established as tried-and-true crops. As one of the last to immigrate to this country, their gardens were under great scrutiny and always managed to shine with neat, clean and orderly appearances. Some great contributions to the field of horticulture are attributed to early German settlers.

The history of our country and those who built it informs who we are today. The true Southern garden is also about heritage, and I encourage you to investigate yours. Take a trip to the library, go online to peruse the wealth of information on our university Web sites and take a trip to see any of the wonderfully preserved historical garden sites in this country of yours.