The South's Gardening Guru
Mark Weathington is working to get the best plants to NC homesBy Leah Chester-Davis
Mark Weathington loves plants. He studies them, evaluates them, talks about them, and travels across the country and around the globe hunting for species that might be valuable in plant breeding or as the next great plant for your garden.
As the director of the JC Raulston Arboretum (JCRA) at NC State University, Weathington is instrumental in helping the North Carolina nursery and green industry remain one of the strongest in the country by evaluating plants and working with nurseries to get the best plants into home landscapes.
Spreading the joy of gardening
While his work puts him in close contact with the nursery industry, equally important is his work educating the public about great plants and gardening.
“We try to create a real community of gardeners, starting with young children,” Weathington explains as he talks about the myriad educational offerings of the JCRA. Classes and workshop opportunities extend through all grades and include adult education.
Even though this plantsman serves at the helm of the nationally acclaimed evaluation garden (a 10.5-acre plant-lovers’ mecca that is jam-packed with a diverse collection of landscape plants), his persona is low-key and approachable. He clearly wants people to enjoy gardening.
Weathington has experience to draw on. He has lived across the South and received his horticulture degrees from Virginia Tech (he took a plant propagation class on a lark and immediately — though unexpectedly — knew that he had found his passion). He worked at a nursery in the mountains, and later had stints at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Norfolk Botanical Garden in coastal Virginia. His knowledge and gardening experience in the mountains, Piedmont, and coast provide the basis for growing advice, plant picks and other recommendations.
Weathington’s first book, “Gardening in the South: The Complete Homeowner’s Guide,” was published last May by Timber Press. How does a man who knows and loves plants narrow thousands of plant possibilities into a book?
“Writing the book was easy. Selecting the plants was just about impossible,” Weathington says. “I did not want to write about the same 100 plants you find in any book for the eastern two-thirds of the United States. I wanted to branch out and introduce people to some newer plants or different ones or perhaps underutilized plants.”
Weathington’s process was to start “with a list of plants that I thought would be interesting” and share it with horticultural colleagues across the South to get their feedback. The resulting list was 600 plants, which his publisher made him pare to 300. He ended up with well-performing plants in eight categories that he calls the Southeast plant palette. He also includes information on plants for problem spots, design inspirations and Southeast gardening practices.
“I have a confession to make,” he says. “I am a lazy gardener. I love plants. I love gardening but I love a lot of other things, too, and I don’t want to spend all my time in the garden. But I want a beautiful and interesting home landscape. It was my goal to write a book that empowered people, both current gardeners and newbies, to get out and plant some things.”
While his book is chock-full of worthy plants to consider, Weathington admits he is quite fond of Osmanthus fragrans. “It’s such a fantastic plant and one that is always in my landscape.”
“Chinese Fringe Tree is a phenomenal, tough small tree,” he adds. “That’s one I often recommend to people.”
He admits being partial to weeping or pendulous plants, which may very well be the subject of his next book. Among those mentioned in his current book are the weeping versions of Katsura tree, redbuds and Norway spruce.
“Gardening is fun. It’s healthy. Gardeners stay so young,” he enthuses. “We have volunteers out here [at JCRA] who are 70-plus years old who are working probably harder than I can. It’s really amazing to me how young gardening keeps you. It’s one of the most rewarding things that people can do.”
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