Inspiration from grandmothers and Southern gardeners

This is a portion of Tony Keinath's maternal grandmother's garden several days after she passed away. The large clump of red flowers is Sweet William, one of her favorites.

Mother's Day brings to mind four women who inspired my gardening style and techniques: my two grandmothers and two Southern gardeners and writers.

My maternal grandmother was a gardener all her life. Her backyard was a garden filled with perennials, vegetables and fruit bushes. Her eclectic arrangement of a large variety of flowers and other plants is reflected in my own preference for the informal cottage garden style.

Her battle against weeds lasted her entire life. When she was five or six, she had to help her father hoe corn and other crops on the farm. She probably had weeded her garden on the Saturday in June when she died.

Grandma taught me to how to weed by hand. She firmly instructed me (and any other young garden "helper") how to pull weeds. "You have to get the root, or it will grow back."

I learned to grasp the crown, the slightly thicker part of the plant where root and stem join, between thumb and forefinger and gently wiggle back and forth and then pull, so the entire weed came out of the ground. I did not simply pull the shoot and leave the root.

Sometimes, hand pulling is the most effective, and most fulfilling, way to attack weeds. I still follow her technique and advice when weeding my own yard.

My paternal grandmother also was a gardener. Unfortunately, she had to give up most of her large perennial garden before I was born, when she had to care for her mother-in-law, who had suffered a stroke.

However, a smaller version of the garden persisted with a few Midwest-tough perennials: bearded irises, red-orange oriental poppies and peonies. She also loved moss roses, which reseeded themselves every year.

In front of the farmhouse, Grandma K. had another small garden that was shaded by a large blue spruce. Each spring around Memorial Day (the safe frost-free date for that part of Michigan), she would set out the geraniums, begonias, impatiens and "colored leaves" (coleus) that she had raised from "slips" taken the fall before. I, too, look forward to the seasonal rhythm of gardening and find it rewarding to raise a few of my own plants.

Emily Whaley was a well-known Charleston gardener. I heartily recommend her book "Mrs. Whaley and her Charleston Garden" (Simon & Schuster, 1997) as a charming story of gardening and life in a bygone era. I was fortunate to be present, as a garden docent with the Historical Charleston Foundation, when her daughter, Marty Whaley Adams dedicated the refurbished garden in 2003.

Although the setting, size and style of Mrs. Whaley's formal downtown garden and my suburban garden differ, her gardening advice still rings true.

To all frustrated gardeners, Mrs. Whaley says, when something dies, you have space to plant something new. I have comforted myself with these words many times at the loss of a favorite plant.

Mrs. Whaley's directions on how to "plumb" a strawberry jar, so that the plants at the bottom get water, enabled me to grow jars filled with winter violas and summer begonias.

My fourth female gardening inspiration is Elizabeth Lawrence, the gardening writer for The Charlotte Observer between 1957 and 1971.

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Lawrence's house and garden, which are open to the public ( Of her several gardening books, my favorite is the first, "A Southern Garden" (UNC Press, 1991), which chronicles in vivid detail the seasonal progression of her first garden in Raleigh, N.C.

Lawrence also has timeless advice for Southern gardeners. "I consider of garden value in this climate, those plants which grow easily and lustily when their requirements are met in so far as is reasonable."

And, "We can have bloom in summer if we want it, but we must plan for it and work for it." For a low-maintenance garden filled with flowers, she recommends a variety of blooming shrubs and seasonal bulbs.

Although I cannot duplicate the gardens grown by my gardening "muses," I have learned from their approaches and techniques to create my own garden, which brings me as much pleasure as their gardens brought them.

Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He also is an avid gardener. Contact him at