Atlanta. Hotlanta. Leave sultry Sunday Funday in balmy Piedmont Park behind. Hop on the next flight out of the capital of Georgia, bumping along over the alligator swamps. Y’all this is the only way to make it from Lavender’s Blue to Savannah blue. Savannah Hilton HEad International: as trim and prim as a spanking new golf resort. Grab a cab and speed along the highway past preened lawns greened by sprinklers and screened by clipped bushes, neat verges and shuttered existences, everything manicured to within a square centimetre of its life.
Turn right off the highway. Screech of brakes. Wham bam thank you ma’am! A change of gear literally, historically, metaphorically. A contrast as sharp as the right turn. Do the time warp. Welcome to the urban jungle that is Savannah. The antebellum and great antebellum mansions between pastel washed clapboard townhouses and horse drawn carriages clip clopping along cobbled boulevards fanned by the river breeze make for picture perfect views framed in 1,000 postcards. Yet it is the lush vegetation above all else, the layer of nature that hangs over and creeps round this genteel city four square, that makes it so special.
Spanish moss forms an overhead tapestry of heavy green drapes and swags interwoven with patches of intense blue sky. A pink azalea carpet sweeps across the squares while wisteria climbs up buildings like wallpaper, dogwood blossom providing extra pattern. Ivy acts as leafy borders. Eat at The Lady and Sons, pray at Christ Church compline, love. But this visit was years ago. The immediacy of the past, the distance of the present.
In the noow not the not yet, who better to talk about Southern planting than the owner of Recreating Eden Landscape Design. Former model and cat lover Sandra Jonas has been designing noteworthy landscapes for over two decades. Gardens, parks, historic sites, cemeteries and even Olympic equestrian competition courses have benefitted from her talent. A graduate in Landscape Design from Radcliffe College Cambridge Massachusetts, her award winning work has been celebrated in Atlanta Homes, Better Homes and Gardens, and Southern Living. Sandra’s own garden is a learned essay in four seasons centred on the vistas and verandahs and virtues of Hamilton House, her 1840s antebellum home in Hogansville.
“Some of the most beloved and ubiquitous spring plants in Georgia are the big blousy Southern azaleas, or Rhododendron indica,” Sandra says. “Every spring garden tour is timed for their bloom. They are spectacular. Larger gardens will have at least one Southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, the plant that defines the South. Larger gardens may use these plants as hedging material. They have dense evergreen lustrous foliage and flowers the size of dinner plates with a fragrance that isn’t too sweet or powerful nonetheness.”
Sandra adds, “Then of course there are the camellias which, depending on the variety, bloom from fall to spring. Right now Camellia sasanqua is the star of the garden. The wonderful thing about the climate here is that the gardens planned with care can have plants to delight every month of the year Most historic Southern gardens feature a ‘camellia walk’ leading from the house to the kitchen. The kitchen was located some distance from the house so that a fire wouldn’t destroy the house. These sheltered walks were probably meant to keep the food warm rather than necessarily for the comfort of the slaves who cooked and served it. Usually there would be fig trees and muscadines, wild grapes, that would be made into preserves and wine for winter. As for the gardens I’ve seen in Savannah, they mostly use plants to frame the architecture, which is sensational, and anchor the houses in the landscape.” Tara!