Home & Garden

Gardening author talks green roofs, sustainability and the coming armadillo invasion

When he started his new book, Mark Weathington was surprised to find it’s been awhile since someone wrote one about gardening in the South.

Sure, there have been related books on more specific topics but not really any general gardening guides aimed at the whole region. So Weathington leaned on his experience living in several distinct regions of the South – the mountains, the Piedmont, the coast and the urban South too – in writing “Gardening in the South: The Complete Homeowner’s Guide.”

“Everywhere I’ve lived, not only have I gardened there but I’ve had to interact with a bigger group of people,” Weathington says, sitting in his office at N.C. State University’s JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, where he is director. He also responds to reader questions in a monthly gardening column for The News & Observer. He’s worked at coastal botanical gardens and at mountain nurseries, and at all these places he helped local gardeners with their region-specific issues.

“Gardening in the South” splits the South into four general regions: the Southeastern Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, the Eastern Highlands and the urban South. Weathington draws on his expertise and experiences to address the challenges and benefits of gardening in each. In the body of the book, he explores the plant palette for the overall region, ranging from annuals and ground-cover plants to shrubs and trees. It’s written for people who have at least a little experience gardening and are curious about where they can go next.

“It wasn’t going to be a basic primer, it was going to be something for people who had at least dipped their toe in the water a little bit,” Weathington says. “Even people who have been gardening for years – everybody has gaps.”

We sat down with Weathington and talked about “Gardening in the South.”

Q: Did any of the recurring questions from N&O readers contribute to the book?

A: I think so. The reader questions, you kind of see trends. I think if I had written this 15 years ago, the pests we’re looking at might be different. Based on what I get from people, people are growing a lot more different things. I’ve written for a newspaper, not the News & Observer, but I wrote in Virginia, starting almost 20 years ago. Just when you see the types of plants people are asking questions about now, you see that people are growing so many different things.

Q: Is that a nationwide trend?

A: It is, although there are some odd things about it. For example, cherry laurels were widely planted as a foundation planting. Corporate buildings, things like that, would plant out big masses of them. There got to be some diseases and some issues with them to make them less appealing. All of the sudden, distylium is very widely grown. This is something we’ve been growing in botanical gardens for 50 years or more, and if you had asked anybody even 10 years ago, they would have said, “Yeah, look at that. It’s an interesting plant.” No one would ever buy one, it’s just a little, low evergreen thing. Now, all of the sudden, it’s the hottest plant, but it’s really been hot because it’s a replacement for cherry laurel.

Q: You mentioned several Southern cities that all had similar environments, even if they were in different regions. What creates that?

A: The similarities really are that there is limited space for growth. You often have severely compacted soils, low nutrients in the soils. In a tree pit, they’ll plant a tree there, grow it for a few years until it dies, pull it out, put another tree in. They don’t do any kind of amending to the soils. Luckily, down here in the South, we don’t have to deal too much with them putting out salt for snow – that’s something, when you get up to Chicago, that is a real issue.

You do have pollution, during the summers you have heat island effect. All of those lead to similar problems for the cities, and I think that’s going to be one of the big challenges for horticulture moving forward, is how do you make cities more livable?

There’s study after study that shows that being around plants lowers blood pressure, helps your body heal quicker, is good for mental health. It’s important. How do you deal with that? Plopping trees in tree pits, these three-by-three concrete planters basically in the ground, is not the solution. We’re going to have to get more green roofs and green walls and provide spaces for trees to put out roots and really grow and be part of the city.

Q: It feels like that’s an emerging field.

A: It’s been around for a long time, but it is an emerging field in terms of it breaking away from a niche area into “this is what horticulture in the 21st century is.” It was only about three or four years ago that worldwide we went from rural to urban. We’ve been that way in the U.S. – we are predominately urban. We are that way in North Carolina.

The buzzword is sustainability – horticulture has always been sustainable in a lot of ways. What that sustainability is changes over time, and now it’s dealing with the environmental consequences of how we shape and influence the earth.

Q: Of all the plants that exist and could have fit in the book, how did you narrow it down?

A: That was agonizing! Timber Press said, “We’ll do 200-300 plants,” so I said, “OK, 300 plants.” (laughs) Narrowing it down was incredibly difficult because I haven’t met too many garden plants that I don’t like. There’s some of the ones that are just so widely used that they needed to be in there because people would be looking for information on them. There are some that are such good garden plants that maybe aren’t being used that I wanted to make sure got in there.

The ones that I left out are the ones that are used in landscaping that just aren’t very good for this area. That’s things like a lot of things in the rose family that get a lot of diseases, like pyracantha, cotoneasters, that are better off in other parts of the country that probably shouldn’t be part of the Southern landscape. If I had to really address common landscape problems with a plant, more than likely it did not make it in the book.

Q: What have I not asked you about?

A: In the pests section, I talk about macro-fauna – deer, a huge one, and rabbits. Armadillos are in there.

Q: East Texas...

A: You say east Texas, but if you look at a map of where armadillos are now, they are getting here. You can find armadillos in Georgia and you can find armadillos in Tennessee. They are incredibly destructive. People complain about rabbits, wait until they see armadillos. Armadillos aren’t eating your plants, but they dig everything up.

I think in maybe the next 20 years, we’ll be dealing with that in North Carolina and certainly much of the South will be dealing with armadillos. It was only 50 years ago that they really crossed the Rio Grande. They were not in the U.S., almost at all – certainly 150 years ago they weren’t. Now they’ve crossed the Mississippi. They’re not big nesters. When they’re not having young, they just wander. They just keep going, so they’re going to go until they hit the Atlantic Ocean.

Meet the author

▪ The book launch for Mark Weathington’s “Gardening in the South: The Complete Homeowner’s Guide” takes place 7:30-9 p.m. on Thursday, May 11, at JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. The event includes a lecture on how to improve your Southern garden and a signing session. It’s free for Friends of JCRA, NCSU students (with ID), and Department of Horticultural Science faculty and staff, but $5 for all others. Details: jcra.ncsu.edu.

▪ Weathington is also scheduled to appear at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 3. Details: quailridgebooks.com.