Book of the Month for Mar 2023

A Rock Garden in the South
Steve Whitesell

A Rock Garden in the South by Elizabeth Lawrence, edited by Nancy Goodwin and Allen Lacy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990. 240 pp. $39.95 hardcover, $24.95 paperback.


A Rock Garden in the South is not a new title and was edited from an unpublished manuscript after Miss Lawrence’s death in 1985 by Nancy Goodwin, the owner of the legendary Montrose Nursery and garden in Hillsborough, NC, and Allen Lacy, former garden editor at the New York Times, with additional horticultural and taxonomic assistance from Paul Jones and Joanne Ferguson. As stated by the author, the book was intended “for gardeners who would rather spend their energies on finding the plants suited for their region than in devising ways to grow those that are not suited to it”. Her voice is patient, literary and anecdotal, meandering, but utterly focused on solving the problem under discussion. Faced with the impossibility of growing true alpines in the South, and in her case Zone 8, she asks “if alpines will not grow in the milder sections of this country, what will” and discovers “It is the pleasure of each gardener to ask it anew, and always there will be a new answer. It is seeking that makes gardening, particularly rock gardening, an art that never grows old”. “ To that end, she insists “specific information is the only kind that is of use to the gardener”.

In accordance with her stated intention, the book provides a stroll through her own gardens, those of her friends and correspondents, and maybe yours with an informed, fond and patient friend, attuned to a specific place, but observant of larger concerns that illuminate beyond her own region in a manner similar to any of Lawrence’s other classics, like The Little Bubs and Through the Garden Gate. In addition to her design practice and status as the first female graduate of the North Carolina State University Landscape Architecture program, Lawrence wrote more than 700 columns on gardening for The Charlotte Observer and many of her books, including this one, are expansions of her newspaper and magazine work.

The descriptions of plants suited to her climate are insightful and based on careful observation of their performance in her garden in Raleigh and later at Wing Haven, her Charlotte garden, currently open to the public, and often include details gleaned from her vast network of garden correspondents. It is not catalog hyperbole, but produces the similar effect of making one want to grow all the plants under discussion, or at least discover those best suited to your own climate. She sorts through the pros and cons of various species, forms and varieties and zeroes in on the best, saving the reader the trial and error she undertook over decades.

Some of the information is outdated after 33 years and sadly, the appendix listing mail order sources for choice plants includes several fondly remembered growers no longer in business, though many remain. More current vendors can be found in the back of current issues of the Rock Garden Quarterly and it is so important for NARGS members to support these small specialized growers before they, too, pass into history.

In addition to offering suggestions for successful planting Lawrence muses on details of construction and rock placement, especially regarding sudden and heavy rainfall that washes out sloped areas. Visitors’ comments included “Why not more open spaces instead of so many flat terraces?” to which she responded “I hope it rains while you are here”. Her ultimate lesson, conveyed with patient specificity, is that careful consideration of site conditions and characteristics will yield success, even if after multiple failures, a most comprehensive lesson.