Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Q&A: Summer Plants for N.C. Gardens

Banana is one of the plants you'll learn how to grow in
Duke Gardens' Landscape Plants for N.C. Gardens class.

If this week’s heat has got your brain in “summer” mode, why not take that thought a step further and think about summer gardening? Bobby Mottern, a landscape architect and Duke Gardens’ director of horticulture, spoke to Gardens intern Crystal Cotton about the summer session of his “Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens,” which begins this Thursday.

What are some of the struggles N.C. gardeners might face?
A lot of people who take the class have moved down here from other areas, usually from up north, and the first thing that they realize is how difficult the soil is for gardening, because it’s mostly red clay.

The first thing they learn is how to deal with the soils. Then they learn how to use plants that do better in this area, because it’s hot. And it’s not necessarily the heat during the day that’s the problem, it’s the heat at night. Sometimes we just don’t get cool at night and that tends to be the deciding factor for plant material, where they can and can’t live.

Pests are another concern, with deer being the biggest pest. Insects and diseases are different things we have to deal with. But overall, the Southeast is a great environment for gardening; we usually get decent rainfall and temperatures are not too extreme. Because of the climate, the plant palette here is more developed than in other areas. We are able to grow many plants that require chilling during the winter, such as peonies and lilacs, but we can also grow salvia and agapanthus that are cold-tender.

What are some common mistakes people make in gardening here?
There are frequent mistakes that people make. Soil condition is number one. People dig a hole and they put the plant in it. They think it’s going to thrive and then they don’t understand why the plant begins to suffer. You’ve got to have quality amended soil with plenty of organic matter. As they say, “You don’t want to put a $10 plant in a 10-cent hole.” You want to make sure your soil is of equal value to the plant you’re buying.
Other issues: I think people water too much, especially their lawns. They also fertilize too much. They let the TV commercials guide them, instead of really understanding what kind of plant trouble they have, what kind of lawn they have, and understanding what it really needs. So we try to talk a little about irrigation and water practices, because we really have to be smart with how we use our water. And deer—unless you live in downtown Durham or Raleigh, you’re going to have deer, almost no matter where you are. We usually talk about what deer do not eat.

What are some of the some of the plants that will be featured in this class?
We’ll focus on perennials; herbaceous plants that go dormant during the winter and come back every year. Some specific plants we’ll discuss are purple coneflower, rudbeckia, veronica, phlox, herbs, hostas and daylilies, tropical plants like hardy banana trees and elephant ears, ornamental grasses, and many more.

What makes those plants so ideal?
They’re tried and true plants. They do very well. They’re easy to grow. They give us a nice flower or interest level throughout the summertime. Some people think it’s all about color, but it can also be a lot about texture, meaning the size or look of a plant’s foliage when it is not in bloom. Some plants have large leaves with really bold textures, such as banana plants. But then you put things like that beside ornamental grass, which is really loose, airy and light in texture, so that creates a lot of interest from combined textures. So that’s another way to generate interest when you’re not gardening just for color.

What does garden design involve?
How you would use plants, how you would group them, how you combine them with other plant material, how you would use the plant to benefit you. Let’s say something has a really nice flower and is very fragrant—you want to make sure to plant that by your patio or beside the back doorstep, someplace you’re going to be walking or sitting and enjoying that space to appreciate that fragrance. Maybe something attracts butterflies or hummingbirds—you want to plant those things where you can see those animals come into your yard.

By the end of the class, what do you what participants to have learned?
I want them to comfortable with the amount of plant material we’ve discussed in the course and for them to go to nurseries and recognize plant material and know those plants are going to do well in their yards. They’ll also be able to envision their own yard as we’re talking about plants in class, and when I say, “This plant has to be in the full sun and well-drained soil, it can’t sit in a wet location,” they’ll start to think about these areas in their yard.

Where are the best places to find these plants?
I try to recommend plants you’ll find at small nurseries and also plants you’ll find at the big box stores.

There are still a couple of spaces left in this course, which runs for four Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information or to register, please call 668-1707 or email The course is part of Duke Gardens’ Home Horticulture Certificate program, though anyone may take the class.

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