Where is the southeastern piedmont?
The southeastern piedmont region of the US is mostly the middle sections of states from Virginia to a tiny bit in Alabama. We have lots of hills dissected by streams, lots of pine trees in the more recently cultivated areas, and lots of clay — thick red clay. That, of course, is an oversimplification. Western piedmont areas are hillier than eastern spots, and our soils do vary quite a bit. We also have plenty of deciduous trees — oaks, hickories, sycamores, etc. that provide shade and habitat for struggling but diverse piedmont ecosystems.
What does it look like?
One thing that’s true for all of the southeastern piedmont: it has been occupied and modified by humans for many thousands of years. The native Americans mostly modified it with fire. They burned forests to thin out underbrush and encourage fresh growth for animal species they hunted. Fire also maintained the piedmont prairies — wide swaths of grasslands dominated by low-growing plant species that most folks think only grew in the middle of our country. But they were here — still are in a few remnant prairie patches — coneflowers, grasses, baptisias — all kinds of floral wonders.
After the English colonists moved in, serious land modification occurred. Native Americans tended to grow crops on fertile floodplains, leaving the hills in their natural forest (or prairie) states. But those land-hungry Englishmen cleared more and more acres to make room for growing agricultural fields and villages, eventually cities. Virgin forests fell fast, and after farmers exhausted the fertility of those forest soils, they abandoned their fields and cut down more forest. Old fields eventually grew back into forests, until farmers cut them down again, and so the cycle continues to today.
Throughout these cycles, piedmont land has changed, but usually those changes were subtle. Many of the same plant and animal species are still here, but some are gone. The hills were deeply rutted by erosion in the 1930s when cotton farming destroyed the soils. Many parts of the southeastern piedmont lost up to seven inches of topsoil. That’s why most of our creeks are silty and shallow now. All that eroded topsoil ended up in the creeks. It still does every time another tract is cleared for another subdivision or strip mall. Piedmont creeks are supposed to have rocky bottoms — that’s what the fish, crayfish, and freshwater mussels and snails need to thrive. Erosion of soil into our waters is the main reason those species are disappearing rapidly.
The key to successful gardening: knowing your place
What does all this have to do with piedmont gardening? I believe that to garden effectively, you must know your place. My place is the southeastern piedmont, more precisely, the piedmont of North Carolina. The population of this rapidly urbanizing region is exploding, mostly due to the arrival of many folks who didn’t grow up here. Many of them are from northern parts of the US, some are midwesterners, and we even have quite a few Californians these days. Although they may have been excellent gardeners in their home states, they rapidly become frustrated when they attempt to apply their past experiences to piedmont gardening.
It’s not that piedmont gardening is any more difficult than, say, gardening on rocky northeastern soils where winter freezes the ground for months at a time. But it is different. In this blog, I’ll try to share some insider information to help piedmont gardeners be more successful. I’ll share information about our native ecology, because it enormously affects how well your chosen garden plants will grow. I’ll offer tips on my favorite native plants, I’ll warn you about the significant negative impacts of invasive exotic species, and I’ll share some tips I’ve come up with during my 40+ years of piedmont gardening — all learned the hard way, of course, by trial and error.
My piedmont paradise
I grow everything. Although I focus on native species (because they’re easier), I also grow a lot of vegetables and herbs, and as many flowers — ornamental (if they’re adapted and non-invasive) and native as I can find room for. I’m an organic gardener — always have been. I don’t think there’s a good reason to garden any other way. I’ll probably use this soapbox to explain my reasoning on that subject eventually too.
I have spent much of my life thinking about and talking about plants. It never bores me. This blog seemed like a good way to continue that conversation. If you agree, welcome. Let’s talk piedmont gardening.