In the Garden:
Middle South
May, 2010
Regional Report

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When touring gardens, notice how structural elements, such as this enticing entrance, lure you through the landscape.

Garden Tours Can Be More Than Fun

If there's anything I like better than a day in my garden, it's the chance to visit someone else's carefully tended landscape. Whether it's a public garden, friend's garden, or a group of gardens open for visitors on a particular day, I'm sure to find new plants, or even old ones, to incorporate into my own space. I'm always watchful for design innovations, too, and clever ideas I can mimic at home.

If you expect a tour to be more than just a way to stoke your enthusiasm, you'll want to take a pen and notepad, as well as a camera. Most garden hosts are happy to share plant names and tell you where a particular cultivar was purchased. And who knows when you might want to make a sketch of a design detail, or jot down a description of an especially successful plant combo?

Whenever possible, grab the opportunity to visit with the gardener. Many months have been spent in preparation of the big day, so they'll welcome your enthusiastic comments and thoughtful observations. Even a quick chat about design choices or plant selection will allow you to see the landscape through their eyes.

When an interesting plant catches your eye, take time to note its growing conditions. For example, in my area where the soil is heavy, conifers are often planted on a slope or a berm so they have the fast drainage they require. If you admire a certain plant, look to see where and how it is grown, so you have an equal chance for success at home.

At some point, turn your focus to design by taking inventory of the garden's structural elements. Look for entrances and exits, enclosures, paths, seating areas, arbors, focal points, containers, and ornaments. The best gardens are not just flowers and foliage, but a combination of the structural elements and the plants that grow in, around, over, and among them.

A thoughtful and thorough examination will help you understand what makes the garden "tick." Notice how the different structures link or separate areas, how they draw the eye, and how they entice you to move through the landscape. Most important, think about your own garden and how these objects and arrangements could enhance your space.

When traveling far afield, it's often helpful to research the climate and compare it with your own. Later this month, when I take a group to tour English gardens and to visit the Chelsea Flower Show, we'll discuss day and night temperatures throughout the seasons, monthly rainfall amounts, and differences in day length and soil types.

Even shorter trips might call for a brief scrutiny of growing conditions. No matter where you live in the Middle South, you needn't travel far to find yourself in a different climate zone.

Finally, try not to be judgmental about what you see. Resist the urge to "like" or "dislike" a particular landscape. Instead, focus on understanding the gardener's intent. A wildlife-friendly garden might look unkempt, while a formal garden could conjure images of Edward Scissorhands. When you look objectively, however, there is almost always something to appreciate, and a lesson to broaden your knowledge of gardening.


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