BY PAM BAGGETT / Cedar Grove, North Carolina, USDA Zone 7
15th annual Maymont Flower & Garden Show
Attend the 15th annual Maymont Flower and Garden Show in Richmond, Virginia, February 19–22. The event includes landscape and garden exhibits, speakers, and shopping. All proceeds benefit the spectacular gardens and programs at Maymont, a once-private estate now open to the public. For information, call 804-358-7166 or visit www.maymont.org.
Two turkeys, one New Year, $650 in credit card bills, and 12 gray days after Christmas, winter burnout sets in. When will it be spring? “Today!” my mailbox shouts, spilling forth mail-order catalogs huddled like hens in a warm winter roost. I dive for the small, specialty-nursery catalogs, written by on-site owners like myself who are driven by love (and obsession) to send their favorite plants winging cross-country each spring.
When I began my business, Singing Springs Nursery, tropicals competed for bench space with the hardy perennials I assumed would be our mainstay. Within two years, the cupheas, colocasias, and lantanas I loved best outsold almost every bone-hardy plant in my catalog. Spend winter tending colorful coleus instead of dormant perennials? You bet! It turns out the dearth of mailorder businesses offering tropicals left a gaping hole in a plant market that was already saturated with hardy perennials from great nurseries—like Plant Delights in Raleigh, North Carolina. Owner Tony Avent is inspired “by the lack of diversity that exists in most gardens and the amazing diversity that exists in plants. There are dead specimens of all kinds of cool plants sitting in herbariums waiting for horticulturists to discover them.” Tony isn’t sitting around, though. He’s scoured the United States, China, and Argentina searching for new perennials.
For Kim Hawks, founder of Niche Gardens, the hunt began when she noticed how many standard perennials failed in southern heat and humidity. Kim’s specialty is herbaceous and woody plants that succeed in the sometimes extreme conditions southerners garden under. “If the plant thrived in a bog or in a cracked, bone-dry landscape, I wanted to try it,” she said. True to her word, Kim’s catalog contained items like mildew-resistant Phlox paniculata ‘Robert Poore’, found in steamy Mississippi. Niche’s new owner, Blair Durant, plans to continue Kim’s good work.
Elizabeth Dean, owner of Wilkerson Mill Gardens, saw a gap in the market 15 years ago and thus chose hydrangeas and other woody plants as her focus. “The difficulty we had in locating regionally grown woodies… led us to think other gardeners were also looking for interesting shrubs, trees, and vines.” Amen to that.
Short of flying to far-flung places, where do these nurseries get new plants? Many come from customers or friends, like fellow plantsmen Doug Ruhren and Jenks Farmer, who have often shared favorite tropicals with me, along with a plea to make them available to other gardeners. Nursery owners search for unique sports and seedlings, or set up special programs to breed them. At Singing Springs, we trial 50 to 100 new coleus seedlings each year, while at Plant Delights, Tony Avent evaluates hosta seedlings for introduction. We glean obscure seed catalogs and plant-society seed lists (and find Oryza sativa ‘Red Dragon’—score!). We also benefit from the beneficence of public figures like the University of Georgia’s Mike Dirr, and public institutions like the J. C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina. Once I mentioned to a Longwood Gardens staff member that I loved their hard-to-find canna introductions. He sent me the entire set.
We travel the world or the Web, read trade publications, visit other nurseries. But most of all, we keep our eyes open. Great plants are everywhere, just waiting to be found. H
Ken Druse explores the soul of passionate gardening in The Collector’s Garden (Clarkson Potter, 1996). Check your pulse if you don’t find inspiration in the stellar photography and keen prose. Southern gardeners featured include designer Ryan Gainey, cyclamen devotee Nancy Goodwin, rose rustler Mike Shoup, and Tony “Drifts-of-One” Avent.