When visitors from near and far comment on the beauty of SFA Gardens, I tell them it’s not easy. In 1981, Henry Mitchell wrote in The Essential Earthman, “It is not nice to garden anywhere. Everywhere, there are violent winds, startling once-per-five-century floods, unprecedented droughts, record-setting freezes, abusive and blasting heats never known before. There is no place, no garden, where these terrible things do not drive gardeners mad.” This quote pretty much sums up gardening in East Texas.
One of the questions I am most frequently asked is, “What should I plant in my landscape?” I always respond with a checklist of questions. Do you enjoy gardening? How much time do you intend to dedicate to your garden? Is your location shady or sunny? What’s your soil situation? Do you like lots of color or prefer shades of green?
My usual response is go native for at least 80 percent of the landscape. Why native? Well, think about it. Native trees, shrubs and perennials have been here a long time. They are adapted to the region and have staying power. Planting natives makes sense for the backbone of your garden. They’re usually unaffected by insects and pests. Once established in the garden, they can usually make it on their own.
So what does well in my location? Well, for large trees, I love swamp chestnut oak, Nuttall oak, live oak, tupelo, magnolia, bald cypress, Florida maple and chalk maple. For smaller understory trees, it’s hard to beat dogwoods, redbuds, silverbells, snowbells, witch hazels, fringe trees and native plums. For shrubs, you can’t go wrong with sweetspire, strawberry bush, spicebush, Southern wax myrtle, American beautyberry, Yaupon and deciduous azalea. And, there are many more to choose from.
So, seek out a gardening expert in your area for advice. Many times, nurseries employ horticulturists who can point you in the direction of native plants and trees that will provide the foundation for your beautiful garden.
There also are numerous online resources that can supply information on what grows well where you live. Remember, in the South, fall is the best time to plant because the root system begins to grow right away and continues to grow throughout the winter, giving the plant a better chance to survive that first summer.