To Know Them You Must Grow Them - Birmingham Botanical Gardens

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To Know Them You Must Grow Them

To Know Them You Must Grow Them

 In 2019 Molly Hendry set out to reinvigorate the Southern Living Garden flower border. What began as a design study led to the discovery that the most
profound gardening lessons often come from putting down
the pen and picking up the trowel.  

By Molly Hendry

Jab, crack.

Two large hosta tubers snap under the pressure of my digging fork. They have finally pushed their large, lush leaves 18 inches above the ground, and I am anxious to divide a few and move a nice healthy clump to the opposite end of the border.


Questions race through my mind as I dig. 

Should I have done this when the leaves were a bit smaller? Will dividing now hurt their chances of flowering?

Another jab, another crack of a hosta tuber splitting …

Will the leaves have the same coloring in deeper shade?

Jab, jab. Crack, crack. 

Oh—dahlias would be lovely in the bedding pocket behind these hostas for summer! Peach or pink?

Digging fork in hand, I carefully shimmy my feet between my next targeted hosta and the salvia I have just transplanted, narrowly missing a ‘Thalia’ daffodil that has come into perfect bloom. This moment is a culmination of many moments of observation and countless scribbles in the notebook I carry in my back pocket. Often the tasks I find myself doing are in response to observations from months before. I have been eyeing these hostas all winter, waiting for their foliage to emerge so I can repeat this drift on the other end of the border, linking the two sides.

I have found myself drawn to this flower border in the Southern Living Garden time and time again. It holds an array of fascinating chances, an addicting concoction of questions with a hint of answers that keeps me coming back wanting more. Each question leads me to a deeper thought, leaving a trail of linked inquiries whose answers seem to manifest in an unending list of garden tasks. But so you can really understand the trail that got us to this particular moment, with me standing in this flower border wielding a digging fork, I should start at the beginning, which can be traced back to a root question from which this whole endeavor has grown: Why was the Southern Living Garden created?

To find answers, I knew I must begin in our archives at the Gardens.  It was a rainy spring day in 2018 as I sat camped out in our library poring over copies of planting plans, scans of magazine articles, and construction details. One of the first Southern Living articles I stopped on was titled “We Designed a Garden for You.”

Maybe this was my answer? This story began by celebrating the garden’s creation through a partnership between Southern Living magazine and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in the late 1970s. Placed in the former Dogwood Garden, it was created to feel like an intimate Southern home garden that would demonstrate the world of gardening opportunities in an area of the country where you can garden year-round because of our mild winters and long growing seasons. The Southern Living Garden illustrates how, just like the rooms in your home, your garden can also have rooms, each with a different purpose and design. Over the decades, new garden rooms have been developed here, each with its own flavor and application to your own garden.

As I was flipping through pictures and various scrapbook clippings, I recognized many bits of the garden as they are today; however, one drawing caused me to pause. The plan was titled “Flower Border,” and it notated long drifts of annuals and perennials, everything from spring tulips and daffodils to peonies and salvias mixed with columbines, mums, heuchera, iris, daisies, asters. 

My heart leapt. This was the first time I had seen anything resembling an English perennial border in Alabama. I was still fresh off the year I spent living and working in several gardens in England while completing a fellowship through a partnership between the Garden Club of America and the Royal Horticultural Society. My longest placement was three and a half months at Great Dixter, the English crown jewel of perennial exploration. I fell deeply in love with perennials as I spent each day among its bulging yew hedges that framed an explosive and intoxicating succession of blooms. Perhaps these plantings captivated me because it was newfound territory for my horticultural training. 

“I realized that I was being invited to be the choreographer, to bring back the original spirit of the border by understanding the plants and weaving them into a captivating design with Southern flair." —Molly Hendry

In the South, we tend to focus on the more woody parts of the garden: the azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, magnolias, and gardenias. During our tea breaks at Dixter I would listen to in-depth conversations about successional planting and the merits of particular combinations. My British friends talked about perennials like they were old friends. They knew what altitude certain plants came from in the mountainous regions of China or which type of native soils in the great American prairies certain plants preferred. This intimate understanding of plants meant they could effectively maneuver them in different planting designs. I longed for that kind of relationship with perennials. These plants were ever-changing, versatile, and lively, creating a thrilling dance through the borders that was different each week. But upon returning to Alabama I couldn’t find that same perennial choreography I fell in love with across the pond. This drawing gave me hope; it felt like a gentle nudge that I was onto something, and I instinctively felt I had to keep digging.

I knew who would have the answers: Dr. John Floyd. He is not only a former editor in chief for Southern Living but also a tireless advocate for the Gardens and a dedicated Tuesday morning volunteer in our Japanese Garden. So one Tuesday I marched down to the Japanese Garden in search of John and some answers to this mysterious drawing. When I found him I immediately began chatting about my exciting perennial border discovery as we walked toward the Southern Living Garden.

He listened intently. By then we were standing in front of where the border had once been, now filled with a monoculture of pansies, with just remnants of perennials left on the fringe. Turning around to face the border, he said, “You know you can’t do an English perennial border in Alabama, Molly.”

Jab, crack.

That was my heart breaking.

 I protested, waving my paper. “But what about this drawing, John?”

“There is a difference between doing an English perennial border and doing a border that evokes the same effects as an English border. That is what you have in your hand. A Southern flower border.”

My heart began to mend. I could work with that.

John continued explaining that he was on staff at Southern Living when the idea for this border came to fruition. At the time, perennials were just coming into vogue and no public gardens were demonstrating how to do a flower border on a homeowner scale. But one man, Dr. Fred Thode of Clemson University, had dedicated himself to the study of Southern perennials. He was asked to design the “Southern Flower Border” for the Southern Living Garden. He spent nearly two years working on it, regularly requesting detailed information on sun patterns, soil, and climate. John explained that Thode was more than a keen plantsman; he was first and foremost a designer. There is a difference between throwing a bunch of flowers into a bed versus working out a thoughtful design of successional blooms that will carry the display from spring to frost. One must know how the seasons flow, how plants perform in the varying light conditions, how colors combine together, how textures contrast once blooming ends.

John raised his brow, asking if I understood. I knew instantly what he was describing: It was that dance I had been searching for since my time at Dixter. With that, John nodded. I realized that I was being invited to be the choreographer, to bring back the original spirit of the border by understanding the plants and weaving them into a captivating design with Southern flair. It was an opportunity I had wished for, but when presented with the chance I wondered if I had what it would take to grab the reins. I vowed to give it my best shot, but first I had some research to do.

Peony in bloom

It was evident from Thode’s philosophy that the specific plants chosen were crucial, and I was eager to uphold the historical integrity of the border. But, I was also interested in using the best plants that the 21st century has to offer. I needed to pick the brains of local plantsmen, and the best place to find them is at local nurseries. So, I took the plant list and headed out to two well-known Birmingham establishments, Petals from the Past and Barton’s Greenhouse and Nursery. I sat down with both Jason Powell and Carol Barton and discussed each plant on Thode’s original list. Were these still good choices for a border today? Were there perennials not listed here I should be aware of? Are there more robust cultivars of these species available nowadays? I soaked up every word. I knew I could google each plant and get general information, but Jason and Carol spoke from decades of hands-on experience in Birmingham, which is a training no book can give you.

Armed with a new list of plants to use, it was time to sit down and begin the design. I analyzed and reanalyzed Thode’s plan. I was dealing with a considerable amount of shade on the northern end of the border, which, judging from Thode’s plant choices, used to be in full sun. But he had a fascinating strategy I was certain I could deploy in my own way. He layered the drifts of spring bulbs in the back, where they would light up the bed in early spring and then be hidden by a spine of summer perennials that would begin emerging when the bulbs finished blooming. In front of the more robust spine of taller plants were layers of shorter plants with annual bedding pockets. The bedding pockets provide stability in the color display, drawing visitors down the path to notice the ever-changing lattice of flowers. It was an effective design framework, but I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of plants that could fill these drifts. I sat paralyzed at my desk, with availability sheets and sketches with nameless holes mocking me.

My eyes drifted to the bulletin board over my desk where I had a strip of paper pinned to the top with the words “To know them you must grow them” scrolled across it in black marker. It was given to me out of a childhood neighbor’s house after he had passed. He was well known in the area for his heirloom iris collection. The only memory I had of his garden was riding my bike past his house on many a summer’s day on the way to my best friend’s house next door. I would see this mysterious neighbor with his gardener, tending to the rows and rows of heirloom irises under the shade of dogwood trees. Although I have only scraps of memories of his garden and this little scrap piece of paper from his home, the words have become a mantra of sorts. To know them you must grow them. 

It’s a simple piece of advice really. Yet it is profound in the way it reminds us not to overcomplicate our garden endeavors. At the end of the day, to truly know our medium, we must engage with it. And that can free us to make decisions, because the truth of the matter is that what we plant might not be right the first go-around. Rather we learn something from each choice, and then try something else. To know them you must grow them. I felt free to take a stab at it.

I began diagramming drifts of certain colors in the border. I started with a spine, like Thode, then worked out from there, filling in the lower-growing pops of color. Every plant chosen must serve the overall picture being created. Then I began filling in names, finding plants on availability sheets that match the colors and heights I needed. It was like putting place cards at a beautifully decorated table: The names brought the whole plan to life. I couldn’t wait for the party to start.

It was a clear June morning when the truck, loaded to the brim with perennials, finally arrived. I stood clenching a crumbled stack of papers listing measured drifts of perennials, my guests that I had invited to the party, who were now rolling down the hill toward me in the back of a box truck. John was standing next to me as we watched them approach. He was one of several volunteers who had agreed to help me plant out the new design that morning. As the driver threw the truck in park and rolled up the back door, John gave me a trusting pat on the back. “Let’s see what you’ve got ... .” I turned just in time to see him grin as he walked past.

Let’s see what I’ve got...

To be honest, I am not quite sure how everything will work out. I slaved over the quantities. I measured and remeasured the planting beds, adjusted the calculations based on different plant spacings. I felt like I was standing on a seesaw that could tip either way. But there was no time to dwell on that; it was go time.

The flats began moving off the truck. I pointed, directing the plants to different sections of the border. Once all the flats were off, it was time to start placing pots. I started with the larger perennials that run the spine of the design. Next I filled in with the smaller drifts and finished by dotting in my “threads” that float freely from one end to the other, a touch of whimsy. I felt my instincts take over, making the call on different drifts as we moved down the border, the volunteers planting behind me as I placed. At some point, I set my lovely drawings down on the garden swing and moved on without them because the placement decisions felt intuitive. There is something about holding a plant in your hand that makes the clarity you have been longing for at the drawing table click into place on the ground.

We finished at lunchtime. I felt a surge of relief. Somehow the quantities of plants seemed to fit just right. The team of volunteers seemed pleased with the outcome. As I drug the hose to the far end to water in the planting before the weekend, I could hear those simple words in the back of my head: To know them you must grow them. The planting was done, but now the true training would begin.

I make a point to get out to the border to observe it each week. My notebook is filled with little observations and notes to myself: Find ground cover for under wood spurge that it can grow up through; need a midsize perennial to step your eye down from the ginger; need to see rudbeckia contrasting against purple fountain grass when approaching from northern path; move foamflower into more shade; weave in more columbine; remove hidden ginger; get veronica out of part sun into full sun; plant lamb’s ears. 

Border comes to life in spring

With each week there are more details I notice, more things I learn, more mistakes, and more little victories. Some things have performed splendidly. Other decisions weren’t quite right. But with each combination that needed tweaking, I learned. The heuchera on the slope rotted out and, I learned, doesn’t like mulch anywhere near its crown. Dianthus doesn’t want to be near direct spray from the irrigation system. Veronica gets leggy in the shade. The daisies have a much more vertical habit than I anticipated; it’s best to weave them among other things or plant closely together. The shady end of the border needs more bloom interest through summer and fall. I need to strategize how bulb foliage can be hidden after the blooms have faded. 

The first frost of the season came in November, sending the plants toward their winter slumber, the curtain drawn for this season. Since the herbaceous layer is largely invisible above ground during the winter, I used bamboo canes to mark out the different drifts of plants before cutting them back. This would allow me to work off my notes effectively in the spring when it came time for planting. I also knew there were a lot of things I needed to shift around after observing them for a season. So began another rhythm. Marking, cutting back. Marking, digging, transplanting. 

Before I knew it, the foliage of daffodil bulbs  was emerging, signaling the approach of spring.  The bare mulch of winter came alive again, and it was time to set the second act of the dance in motion. And that brings us back to this moment with me, in the border, balancing between several swaths of plants, splitting hosta tubers with my digging fork. Dotting the length of the path are crates of new plants waiting to be placed. This border, a grand experiment, an ongoing endeavor in observation and response, of questions and answers, of ideas and digging forks. 

I feel quite lucky to have stumbled upon Dr. Thode’s drawing in the archives that fateful spring day. It is humbling to step into the line of mentorship that has coursed through this border. It begins with Dr. Thode, who taught a generation of horticulture students like John the power of perennials in the Southern landscape, which is captured in the border’s original design. Then John came alongside me, giving the gentle nods and encouraging pats on the back I needed to take a risk, to try my own hand. That is the great gift of mentors. When they allow you to take a shot, even though they would most definitely do it better themselves, knowing that it is through making your own decisions and witnessing your own mistakes and victories that you truly learn. In turn, I have been able to bring my high school intern, Ann, along for the ride this past year as we observe and respond to the perennial dance and dream of the scenes to come. I have found that gardeners, perhaps filled by the bounty of the land, are some of the most generous souls on earth. 

So now, as we approach summer, the curtain is open and the dancers are in place. And today, the Southern Living Garden still grows from the answer to that original question: Why was the Southern Living Garden designed? We designed a garden for you. Beyond the rooms of this garden, our hope is that it inspires you to pick up the digging fork and choreograph your own dance in your garden, because to know them, you must grow them.

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