Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
August, 2006
Regional Report

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After a trip to North Carolina and seeing sourwoods growing wild, I am even more inspired to nurture its presence in my garden.

Going Beyond the Garden Gate

Exploration and discovery -- a desire as old as humankind. Seeing what's beyond our own little sphere, learning about new things, making new friends, reconnecting with old ones. For me, as a gardener, satisfying these needs involves travel and plant conferences. Over the years, I've found that attending plant society annual meetings as well as other workshops, seminars, and so forth is a great way to see other parts of the country, find out more about a subject that interests me, and meet like-minded people. Not everyone enjoys discussing the merits of different fish fertilizers or relates to the term "driveway nursery," which is where all those plants stay that you just had to have but still are not sure where to plant them.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the 23rd Annual Cullowhee Conference: Native Plants in the Landscape held at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. I had wanted to attend this conference for years and finally had the opportunity. Besides western North Carolina being one of my favorite places, the conference this year had a workshop and lecture by noted native plant landscape designer Darrel Morrison, plus other lectures that sounded interesting from their descriptions.

The trip and conference both proved to be enriching and enlightening experiences. It was the perfect time of year to see the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) in bloom. I never realized that it was basically a tree that grows in disturbed areas, such as along roadsides, much as sumac does where I live. Sourwood has always been one of my favorite trees and is native to my region, but I had never seen it bloom in the wild. To see masses of the lily-of-the-valley-like flowers was breathtaking.

The first day of the conference offered a number of field trips. The one I attended took us to an essentially barren, or prairie-type, environment on a mountainside. Discovered only about 50-some years ago, the site is at approximately 3800 feet. The area is dominated by little and big bluestem, plus about 20 other grass species. To see these grasses while standing on a steep hillside and learning of the burning techniques being used was an incredible experience. There was also a species of thalictrum that would have looked great in any garden plus other perennials and shrubs that I had either never heard of before or never seen growing with such abundance in the wild.

Darrel Morrison's workshop and lecture proved why he is held in such high regard. In his quiet, unassuming way, he was able to convey complex concepts in a straightforward manner that I will draw upon for years. This alone would have been worth the trip, but I also was able to attend a presentation on managing and restoring diversity in our woodlands by William Cullina, director of the New England Wild Flower Society Nurseries, learned how to propagate native plants with no greenhouse and minimal expense, heard about how to make the garden an attractive habitat for monarchs and other butterflies, and a number of other lectures. Plus, there were vendors selling a wide variety of native plants, and I got to spend time with a fellow garden writer that I hadn't seen for years and made a number of new friends.

After the meeting, I explored the area a bit more, including visits to the North Carolina Arboretum outside of Asheville, which offered some intriguiging ways to use native plants in the landscape, as well as a stop at the home of another garden writer where I got to see some of her creative gardening techniques.

Certainly, not everyone wants to take their vacation time attending a plant conference, but I would urge you to keep in mind that such opportunities exist and are a great way to recharge your "gardening batteries." There are plant societies for just about every type of plant, and most have annual meetings. For instance, the North American Fruit Explorers (, a group of both amateurs and professionals who are interested in a almost any fruit that exists are having their conference in Lexington, Kentucky, at the end of August this year. The American Horticultural Society ( offers a number of programs each year, plus has a listing of events around the country offered by other organizations. Use the Internet as well as local botanical gardens, arboretums, and plant societies to find out about others. You'll have great fun and learn lots as well.

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