“That’s not the way we do things here.” You may have heard that from and old timer or contractor, especially if you moved to the coastal plain from another region of the country.
Sometimes that rebuke sounds like fighting words, but in reference to gardening, in particular, it is likely fair warning that you are planning to do something the wrong way.
Southern gardening can be tricky. Plants need to be able to thrive in hot humid summers, intense sun, mild winters, drought, heavy rain and floods. Add dramatic temperature changes to that and you have our regional climate.
You likely know that we are in Hardiness Zone 8b (the warmer half of Zone 8). The Hardiness Zone Map is based on the average minimum temperature, which for us in 8b is 15 – 20 degrees F. Many of us make our plant selections based on just that much data—how low a temperature a plant can endure.
Statistics tell us that we receive an average of almost 50 inches of rain per year along the Coastal Plain. That is nearly one inch per week—practically ideal for our lawns, gardens and crops. However, our rainfall is not so perfectly allocated. In reality weather may be wet or droughty, and not necessarily when we expect it. Extremes are normal, especially as climate change becomes more apparent.
Beyond the basics gardeners need to adapt to regional conditions to be successful. Matching plants to the regional and local environment helps significantly to reduce plant stress and disease. Siting and spacing plants to allow good air flow is critical in our high humidity environment. Regularly adding compost to the soil is necessary with fast draining nutrient depleted soil and also to improve clayey soil. Keeping plants well mulched moderates soil temperature in the event of dramatic temperature changes.
There is a mix of features to consider about a plant before you buy, site and bed it in your yard. Is it drought tolerant, moisture loving, deer resistant, disease resistant, heat loving, heat resistant, low maintenance, humidity loving, highly flammable? What attributes does the plant need to survive? The answer to that question is why new plants are trialed in different regions of the country—to see how they perform in different cultural conditions.
Stay away from invasive plants—watch out for descriptions like ”fast growing” or “grows in all conditions” on tags. Be aware that some plants are invasive in one region and not another, but growers, nurseries and mail order catalogs sell invasives to anyone who will buy them and uneducated landscapers install them. You can find a list by Googling Clemson Invasive Plant Species.
Low maintenance is a foremost concern when homeowners plan or manage a landscape today. Hardscape is the ultimate low maintenance yard material. It makes an outside room, pathways, patios, retaining walls and such. Installation can help reduce a lawn. A smaller lawn is a step toward lowering maintenance.
A growing number of government entities, environmentalists, educators, green industry professionals with good reason advocate lawn reduction. The movement urges homeowners to limit lawn area to the space necessary for activities, and use the rest of the yard for flowers, vegetables, trees, shrubs and native plants. More plants and less turf help local native wildlife and the environment.
Turf consumes a lot of water. Unlike the western regions of the country, water is not in short supply in the southeast. That doesn’t mean we are off the hook with regard to water guzzling lawns. Turf grasses are regional; therefore, selection and maintenance are different from region to region.
For a number of years lawns have been overloaded with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weed killers as homeowners have strived for perfectly clipped expanses of weed-free turf. With rain and irrigation the glut of chemicals runs off into our waterways where it harms marine life and upsets the natural ecological balance. You can help overcome years of chemical dependence and environmental degradation by turning back toward nature and ecology and limiting chemical use.
If you are not a local Carolina native but want to improve your garden, you may want to change how you do some things.
Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at firstname.lastname@example.org.