By Charlene Oldham
Photography Credits: Author Photo: Suzanne Edney
Garden Photos: Courtesy of the JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University. Front Cover Photo: Jack Glisson
With more than 20 years of gardening experience, self-proclaimed “plant geek” Mark Weathington writes a gardening guide that encourages Southern homeowners to grow what makes them happy.
During a childhood spent in south-central Virginia, pulling weeds was a punishment for Mark Weathington. So, it wasn’t until – on a lark – he took a plant propagation class at Virginia Tech that he really noticed the mountainsides around Blacksburg, Virginia, bursting with redbuds and other flora the following spring.
“I was functionally blind to the plants that were there,” he says. “But the class opened my eyes to an entirely new world.”
Weathington went on to earn undergraduate degrees in sociology and horticulture and a master’s in horticulture from Virginia Tech. His background studying both people and plants proved the perfect preparation for a career in public horticulture that led Weathington to roles as a horticulturalist for the Atlanta Botanical Garden and director of horticulture for the Norfolk Botanical Garden. Today, he serves as director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University and has published a gardening guide to share some of what he’s learned over more than two decades as a professional “plant geek” in the South.
When representatives from Timber Press, publisher of Weathington’s “Gardening in the South: The Complete Homeowner’s Guide,” initially approached him about writing a book, he questioned the need for another Southern gardening guide. But digging into the stacks showed most of the books published in the last 10 or 20 years were more specialized, perhaps focusing on a single state or smaller slice of the region. So Weathington set out to write a book that spanned Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Texas and northern Florida.
He then divided the territory into three geographical regions based on climate and topography: the Southeastern Coastal Plain, the Piedmont and the Eastern Highlands. Weathington also included a fourth unofficial region – urban areas that often face unique issues including pollution and higher temperatures than the less-developed land around them, where plants must serve vital functions including reducing runoff.
“The book is really based on first-hand knowledge,” he says. “I wrote about my experiences, and I’d gotten to the point where I had enough knowledge to perhaps be useful to other people.”
But “Gardening in The South” isn’t filled with complex climatology or high-level horticultural terms. It is really written with the average Southern homeowner in mind, explains Weathington, who classifies himself as a “lazy gardener.”
“I have a garden because I love plants. I love being surrounded by plants. They make me happy,” he says. “But the gardening process isn’t where I get really jazzed.”
So Weathington’s own garden leans toward low-maintenance plant grouping he enjoys, but aren’t necessarily conventional combinations.
“I have a garden that any good designer would turn their nose up at,” he says. “It’s somewhat eclectic rather than design-oriented.”
In the book, he encourages other gardeners to adopt the same approach by creating gardens that suit their preferences and lifestyles rather than picking plants according to often-outdated or unrealistic principles of landscape design. To help narrow down the almost infinite plant possibilities, Weathington suggest thinking of garden space three-dimensionally, as a room or series of rooms complete with furniture – the plants that populate those rooms. Dividing a garden into rooms makes it easier to choose options for groundcover, trees, fences and other features that might make up the “floor” and “walls” of an outdoor area.
“Also, when you start thinking about plants as furniture, you’re more likely to move them, get rid of them, get new ones,” Weathington says. “People are really averse to getting rid of bad plants. I’ve never figured out why.”
Indeed, “Gardening in The South” encourages homeowners to embrace the inevitable dead plant or ugly garden grouping as a learning experience.
“Gardening, as any gardener will tell you, is trial and error. You kill plants. Some plants live. Some plants don’t act the way you expect them to act. It’s a process. Some people fail and think they’ve failed at gardening, but failure is part of gardening.”
Adding compost and otherwise improving the soil before putting the first plant in the ground is the most important thing any gardener can do to set themselves up for success, regardless of their geography, Weathington says. He also recommends starting small and starting slow so gardening grows into a pleasure rather than a punishment. After all, people can visit arboretums or botanical gardens if they want to stroll through formal landscapes without a weed in sight. The purpose of a home garden, whether it’s a small collection of containers or a yard perfect for pets and play dates, is to give its owner a space of their own to connect with nature every day.
“We need plants. We need nature around us,” Weathington says. “It helps ground people. Plants are vitally important for environmental reasons, but they are also critically important just for our mental wellbeing.”