It occurs to me that in this day of digital photos, it makes much more sense to write a garden journal online than in a tatty notebook dripping with photographs, seed packets, and scrawled designs for strange garden structures.
We moved to this house in suburban Savannah in 1998. We chose it for the view over the juncus and spartina marsh, with ospreys, egrets, and marsh hens always with us, and because the garden is much smaller than the 2 acres with which we wrestled at our previous house. Thom looks after the bird feeders and does much of the heavy lifting. He also puts his foot down about a few things, such as not cutting down palmettos, and leaving room to take a pickup into the back yard.
Our initial problem was the jungle of trees and our indecision about which to cut down. We dithered about this for years, which slowed development of the garden. Eventually, with some assistance from the electric company, we took out 27 pines, a huge mulberry, a chinaberry, a water tupelo, and assorted other bits and pieces, and created some space. Thom’s affection for palmettos is understandable, but I must say they are a bit of a curse when they drop branches into the pond and berries on the patio.
This photo, taken in 2002, does show how shady the front garden was before we cut any of the pines down. That dogwood is a beautiful shape, but it is a very poor variety (or possibly the wild type). The flowers are tiny and miserable. I need to replace it, but I don’t want to leave a bare spot there while a new tree grows. I have planted a Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ beside it and hope that perhaps this year that will be large enough for me to take out the dogwood.
I think back to my initiation into zone 9 gardening, 20 years ago. At the time, we had officially been classified as zone 8b, which is the same as that of southern England. I naively thought this meant I could grow some of the plants that flourish in England but were unavailable to me in upstate New York. What I did not recognize was that (a) the horticulturists are wrong, and this part of the coast is indubitably in zone 9, and that (b) there are several varieties of zone 9.
Zone 9 in the dry California chaparral is a very different creature from zone 9 in the humid coastal southeast. It was also naive to think that help might come from the University of Georgia, because that is in Athens, above the fall line, and a full zone cooler and dryer than the coast.
The Arbor Day Foundation even has a nifty thingy that enables you to look up your zone by zip code:
In the end, much of the assistance I needed came from the Wilmington Island Garden Club, from a few local publications, from observing Savannah gardens, where you occasionally see some amazing plants, and from trial and error.
The most important limiting factor for plant survival in zone 9 is the hot, humid summers. There is so much water vapor in the air that for up to 4 months the nighttime temperature never falls below 70°F. Tomatoes won’t set fruit at this temperature, and many plants literally grow themselves to death. Lack of a sufficient dormant period, in winter or in summer, is why favorites such as lilac, peonies, most bearded iris, and most spring bulbs either won’t survive, or do very poorly in this climate.
Some people persevere anyway, and grow forsythia, peonies, flowering quince, but these are mere shadows of their relatives further north, and I hate to see the poor things struggling.