Book Review: Heirloom Gardening in the South: Yesterday's Plants for Today's Gardens

Reviewed by: Linda Lemusvirta, Producer
Central Texas Gardener, KLRU-TV, Austin, TX, PBS.
Heirloom Gardening in the South
Heirloom Gardening in the South

When first published in 1995, The Southern Heirloom Garden by William Welch and Greg Grant transported me back in time to the origins of many plants I enjoy in my own Texas garden. The authors have collaborated once again to write Heirloom Gardening in the South, which is essentially an expanded and updated version of their first book. This new tome retains the same conversational style, but includes even more stories that illuminate our garden heritage. Integrating historical background, their experiences, and recollections from diaries and letters, Welch and Grant take readers on a fascinating journey into the past that allows us to better understand and appreciate the gardens of today.

The book starts off describing the various influences upon southern gardening, melded from Native American, European, African, and Asian contributions to everything from design and art to the plants themselves. The authors have directly contributed to our garden beds as well. For example, Welch explains how he brought the foundling 'Maggie' rose into cultivation, and Grant details how he developed the salmon-pink 'Pam Puryear' Turk's cap mallow by making careful crosses.

Among chapters on naturalizing bulbs, gardening for wildlife, and edibles, the book includes a couple of new guest-written chapters. One satisfies the renewed interest in homegrown fruit, contributed by Jason Powell, co-founder of Petals from the Past nursery. And Master Gardener Cynthia W. Mueller penned a chapter on propagation with slips, starts, woody cuttings, and seeds, which I found really instructional. Another great addition is Welch's discussion of designing with heirlooms. It's one thing to fall in love with a plant; quite another to give it a visually pleasing residence among its companions.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to expanded plant descriptions that explain the origins, useful properties (medicinal, food, wildlife), and cultivation practicalities of the "most commonly cultivated plants in early Southern gardens," accompanied by the authors' photographs. I especially enjoyed how Welch and Grant turn plant names into stories that stick.

Even readers prone to "skimming" books may find themselves drawn in by the larger color photos, sidebars, and plant lists. Not just for Southerners, this one's for any gardener who values personal experience and the back-story on heirloom gardening.

This book review originally appeared in The American Gardener magazine.

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