Carmen Johnston, Columbus native and Southern Living Garden Lifestyle Expert, on the art of container gardening in our region.
Photos by Haley Sheffield
Carmen Johnston is a Southern Living Garden Lifestyle Expert, an entrepreneur, and a designer.
A Columbus native, Johnston knows the challenges that can come with gardening in our region. Her passion is sharing her love of plants with her clients, and making gardening an accessible and enjoyable activity for everyone willing to give it a go.
Johnston is the owner of Carmen Johnston Gardens, a nationally renowned commercial, residential and wedding flower and garden design business. It was her work that garnered her the attention of Southern Living magazine’s garden editors. Now, she serves as a garden lifestyle expert for the magazine and the popular Southern Living® Plant Collection. Johnston travels across the country for public appearances including recent appearances with Home Depot, Southern Living, and CMT's Pickler & Ben.
Johnston recently corresponded with The Columbusite to discuss how she fell in love with gardening, why container gardening is a great place to start, and what Columbusites should know about growing plants in our area.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into gardening?
Since I was a little girl, I have been passionate about gardening. One of my fondest memories is that every summer, my dad would order earthworms and my sister and I would sprinkle them in the yard.
How do you feel as though your experiences in the garden have shaped your life?
Being around beauty both indoors and outdoors invigorates the soul. The more time I spend surrounded by living plants and flowers, the more energized I feel.
How did you become a spokesperson for Southern Living?
About 5 years ago, after being featured in the magazine several times, my business was flourishing and Southern Living convinced me to come aboard as a Garden Lifestyle Expert. One of the many perks is that I get truckloads of plants to share with my fabulous clients.
Please describe your business and your personal brand.
As a Garden Lifestyle Expert for Southern Living, I am fortunate enough to share my passion of decorating and entertaining with flowers and plants with all my clients. My company, Carmen Johnston Gardens, is a full service commercial and residential garden design business. There is something special about being surrounded by something living, whether it is gardens or shrubs.
Why are container gardens a great place for anyone to start?
Container gardens are perfect for everyone, from garden beginner to veteran. They are an easy way to decorate and elevate any space without having to stick a shovel in the ground.
What are your recommendations for supplies?
If you are every wondering about the best tools or want to purchase the best containers, the easiest way to keep up with the trends is to visit my Amazon List.
Of course, everyone needs a good pair of clippers, my personal favorites are Okatsune Pointed Tip Hand Shears.
Also, it is critical to invest in good soil. At the moment, I am using Fafard professional potting mix. You have to nourish your plant for it to produce.
Another great tool to have is a Hoe Cultivator combo. It is a great multi-purpose tool. You can dig a hole and remove weeds with just one tool.
What gardening zone should people rely on when planting in Columbus?
When planting in Columbus, it's important to know that Columbus is in zones 8A and 8B.
Can you give us a process? How would you go about container gardening for beginners
specifically in our area?
First things first, are you planting in the sun or the shade? Once you evaluate your area, go find an amazing container. Some of my favorites are listed on my Amazon List. My motto is “small pots turn into crock pots in the south” so make sure you invest in a large enough container. It is a must that your container has drain holes for air circulation and drainage.
After you have procured the perfect container, fill with really good soil. A tip of the trade is before you fill container with soil, take the empty plant containers and turn them upside down in the bottom of the pot so you don’t have to fill with as much soil.
After that prep, the fun parts begins: you get to choose your “3 t’s”: tall, thick and trailing plants.
Some of my favorite go-to’s for a beautiful combination for sun:
Thick: Diamond frost or Euphoribia
Trailing: a Bubble Gum Vista Petunia.
For long lasting blooms all summer long, be sure to feed your plants and top dress with Osmocoat.
What makes a garden stand out?
It is my belief that a garden should be personality-driven. The garden needs to reflect the homeowner’s personality and I often mirror the inside style of the home on the outside in the garden. Garden elements such as beautiful aged terra cotta materials, old benches made any garden feel quaint and cozy.
Carmen Johnston's workspace at her Atlanta home.
How do you avoid over buying?
Overbuying is easy to do, therefore, it is important to go in with a plan. If you overbuy, it’s okay, the more plants the merrier!
What are your personal favorite veggies to grow in Columbus?
When I had my garden in Overlook, the green peppers were prolific every year. Any type of pepper should grow in the Georgia heat. Also, if you plant in early spring, radishes do very well in Columbus.
Do you have a favorite recipes from your garden or kitchen that you could share?
My fridge is always packed with infused water. I simply adore Weck jars. Staying hydrated is a must during a southern summer so why not make it beautiful! Here's my favorite recipe:
Refreshing Orange Blueberry Mint Water:
Add 3 orange slices, 15-20 blueberries and 3 muddled basil leaves to a pitcher of filtered water.
Let refrigerate until chilled.
What's next for you, Carmen?
Where do I begin?! Between my amazing clients and upcoming printed/digital media appearances, I am booked through the Fall! I have to remember to pinch myself every morning to realize that I really am able to work my dream job. The announcement hasn’t been made yet, but I will be keynoting a top gardening conference this November sharing my story and best gardening tips.
Connect with Carmen:
For more information on the work of Haley Sheffield visit her website here.