Southern Gardening in the North

Summer 2007 CSANews Issue 63  |  Posted date : Aug 07, 2007.Back to list

I spend many days on the road as a travel writer gathering new material for my “Interstate-75” and “Florida” books…and so it probably comes as a bit of a surprise that you find me writing about gardening. But I love my town home, with its brick-walled courtyard in Port Credit, on the north shore of Lake Ontario. This is my sanctuary, my place to go, to think and relax when I'm not travelling. In particular (and probably because I discovered a love for puddles as a youngster in 1940s England), I have always enjoyed building ponds with marsh or bog water gardens – something which is only now becoming popular in our Canadian climate (see side story about my first and last bathtub pond).

First, let me admit that I’m not a gardening expert. I’m not very good at recognizing different plants by name (or appearance, for that matter). In fact, I almost believed the tongue-in-cheek advice once given to me by a jealous neighbour, “Dave, to find out whether something is a valuable plant or a weed, just grip it by the stem and pull firmly. If it comes up easily, it’s a valuable plant!”

But I do enjoy pottering around, installing fountains, building waterfalls and converting my little plot of earth into a 16th-century pond and statuary paradise, with a Virginian settler’s raised herb garden. When not travelling or writing, you can usually find me behind my wrought iron gate, close to the sundial, enjoying a close-up relationship with urban nature.

We start our Canadian garden season early in the year – in January, while we are in the South getting ready for the Snowbird Extravaganza. Over the years, we have found that shopping at southern garden centres and the wonderful gift shops attached to botanical gardens (hint: you can usually shop at these stores without paying admission to the main gardens) are great places to buy things that are impossible to find back home.

Of course, we cannot bring plants or live materials back to Canada – it’s against our agricultural regulations – so we confine ourselves to garden accessories, planters, statues and the like.

Now if you are an antique shopper, you know how difficult it is to bypass a roadside antique mall in your southern travels; Kathy and I are the same way with botanical gardens and garden centres. As soon as we see one, it’s out of the car and into the store. Come to think of it, we have also made some of our best garden purchases in antique shops!

So let me share a few of the best garden “shopping places” that we have discovered after years of roaming the southern states.

Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond, Virginia – Without a doubt, the best of all garden stores with loads of unusual items is just east of I-95 at exit 80, in Richmond, Virginia. Very convenient for those returning from Florida to Quebec or Eastern Canada. I have bought many items here, in particular, carved stone Celtic garden edging, terra cotta herb markers and our favourite pond spitter, “Froggie.”

While at Lewis Ginter, don’t overlook visiting the wonderful gardens and the spectacular conservatory with its Elizabethan thatched doll's house, streams and waterfalls.

Outside, you will enjoy the garden’s many special planting areas, such as the Four Seasons, 1545 Renaissance Healing Garden, Rose Belvedere, Asian Valley, Island and Children’s Gardens, just to mention a few.

Bellingrath Gardens, Theodore, Alabama (near Mobile) – An excellent botanical garden at which to get “ideas” for plantings and architectural features. The gift shop has many unusual gardening accessories, porcelain treasures and Coca-Cola memorabilia (founder Walter Bellingrath was the first Coca-Cola bottler franchisee in Mobile).
Mr. Bellingrath once said of his gardens, “they are like a beautiful woman with a different gown for each week of the year.” You will find gardening inspiration here.

Brookgreen Gardens, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina (near Myrtle Beach) – The moment you enter these extensive southern gardens, you know that you are in for a treat. The entire property is a blending of beautiful plantings, sculpture by well-known artists and water gardens. Regardless of the season, around every corner awaits a visual treat …whether it is the bronze statue of a man reading a newspaper on a park bench or the beautiful Roman goddess Diana, shooting her hunting arrow skyward from the centre of a lily-padded pond.

Similar surprises and treats await the garden shopper in the Brookgreen gift shop. Any treasure purchased here will certainly enhance your northern garden sanctuary.

And finally, the best retail garden and nursery centre which we have found during our many travels through the southeast…

Driftwood Garden Center, Naples, Florida – Owned and operated by the Hazelett family for 35 years, the Driftwood Garden Center is a water gardener’s dream come true.

Fountains, spitters, pond-side statuary…you will find it all here with, of course, all of the other water garden necessities such as underwater light kits, pumps and skimmers.

I’m always intrigued by their fountain display area, which is really a very shallow pool filled with beach stone which you walk on without getting wet – in fact, the surface stone is dry. The fountains around you are all running, with the water disappearing into the ground at your feet.

As you will see from their website (see “How to Find It” sidebar), the Driftwood is much more than water gardens and fountains; it has everything for we northern gardeners, in the South.

And back home in Port Credit, Ontario, over the years, we have brought our Southern treasures home from these wonderful garden shops and lovingly installed them in our historical and romantic walled Canadian paradise.

Happy planting!

SIDEBAR 1 – “My first and last bathtub pond”
When we lived in Brighton, England, my mother wanted a pond for our back garden…so Dad brought home an old bathtub and installed it with surrounding rockery. Brick steps inside created different levels of water plantings. These were the war years and I’m not sure that the fish enjoyed my toy submarines, wooden battleships and daily depth charges from my model “Wimpy” (Wellington) aeroplane. I had discovered “ponds.”

In 1963, I built my first Canadian pond a few months after Kathy and I were married…in our apartment's living room. There is a whole new adventure story here! It was a watery experience, which firmly laid the groundwork for our long and happy marriage.

When we moved to a home with a garden in the 1970s, I decided to install a bathtub pond like the one we had in England. A friend (who had a station wagon) helped me pick up an old bathtub at a wreckers' yard. On the drive back, I realized that I would need a plug, so we stopped at a Canadian Tire store. When the hardware clerk asked what size plug we needed, I said (I couldn’t resist this) that we didn’t know, so had brought the bathtub with us. He of course didn’t believe us, so we took him out to the car. Many years later, the staff still talks about "the guy who brought his bathtub to the store for a plug.”

SIDEBAR 2 – “How to Find It”
Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens
1800 Lakeside Avenue, Richmond, Virginia 23228 (2.4 km north of I-95, exit 80)
Phone: 804-262-9887

Bellingrath Gardens
12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd., Theodore, Alabama 36582 (32 km south of Mobile)
Phone: 1-800-247-8420 (251-973-2217)

Brookgreen Gardens
1931 Brookgreen Drive, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina 29576 (24 km south of Myrtle Beach on US 17-Ocean Highway)
Phone: 1-800-849-1931 (843-235-6000)

Driftwood Garden Center
5051 Tamiami Trail N, Naples Florida 34103 (7.5 km north of Naples-5th Ave. on US 41-Tamiami Trail, or 6.7 km west of I-75, exit 107-Pine Ridge Rd)
Phone: 239-261-0328