The Plantation South: An Agricultural Paradise

  December 19, 2023   Read time 4 min
The Plantation South: An Agricultural Paradise
The Plantation South culinary region begins just south of the Mason-Dixon Line in north central Maryland, where it’s bounded on the east by the Chesapeake Bay Shore region and on the west by the Appalachian South region. It encompasses much of Virginia and the eastern Carolinas, then sweeps southwestward along America’s coastal plain.

The Plantation South also encompasses parts of the states running northward along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River from Louisiana to the Indiana border. Although the Appalachian Mountains thrust themselves through the heart of the Plantation South region, they are culturally and culinarily separate from it. The map on page 24 illustrates the region’s scope. The geological story of the Plantation South begins in the Appalachians; these ancient mountains are the source of the region’s deep and fertile soil.

Geologists believe that sixty million years ago, the Appalachian Mountains were about twenty times their present height. However, erosion gradually decomposed the mountain rock, breaking it down into mineral-rich soil. During the ice ages, glaciers leveled the mountain peaks, carved out valleys, and pushed soil downhill. In warmer periods, the glaciers receded and forests grew on the slopes. Fallen leaves added organic matter to the soil. Melting ice created rushing rivers that carried soil farther downhill. When the water slowed in the foothills and the flatlands below, it released the soil, forming thick deposits covering the underlying subsoil by many feet. Thus, the Appalachians’ lost soil became a valuable resource for the Plantation South region that surrounds them.

The Appalachians were eventually worn down into a long chain of low, rounded mountains. Below them the terrain gradually flattens, becoming piedmont—literally “foot of the mountain,” an area of rolling hills at a mountain’s base. Plantation South piedmont hilltops have adequate amounts of nutrient-rich soil, with only the occasional rocky outcrop. Southern piedmont valleys are protected from mountain winds and have thick soil and few rocks. Fast-flowing creeks and rivers provide water. Below the piedmont lies the Southern coastal plain, a flat band of land bordering an ocean, in this case the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. From the Delaware Bay to Georgia, the Appalachians’ eastern piedmont is separated from the coastal plain by the fall line, a rocky shelf over which the region’s rivers plummet in a series of low waterfalls.

In the Plantation South, the fall line became an important line of demarcation, both agriculturally and socially. Land above the fall line is suitable for light farming and, especially, grazing. Below it, the Southern coastal plain stretches broad and flat, with deep and richly fertile soil, for many miles until it reaches the sea. Europeans recognized the Southern coastal plain’s potential as an agricultural powerhouse capable of producing cash crops on a massive scale. Moreover, below the fall line the region’s rivers flow slowly, deep, and wide, forming safe harbors for trading vessels at their mouths. This land gave rise to plantation society.


Today much of the region’s terrain is visible as open land. However, when Europeans first arrived in the early 1600s, both the Southern piedmont and coastal plain were covered with deciduous forest. The dense canopy of trees further enriched the region’s soil with layers of fallen leaves that gradually decomposed into superb organic fertilizer.

The Plantation South enjoys a mild climate with ample moisture as rainfall and humidity because of its weather-moderating proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The Appalachian Mountains help shield lands to the east from harsh westerly weather while funneling warm, moist Gulf of Mexico weather northward. Thus, lowland Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas have climates suitable for virtually all types of European food plants. Proximity to the Gulf substantially warms the Deep South. There, a total of more than three hundred frost-free days makes the cultivation of subtropical plants possible and allows two separate growing seasons for many temperate-climate crops.

In the Plantation South, average precipitation ranges from 30 to more than 60 inches per year. In much of the region, cool weather is moist and summers are thickly humid. Water concentrates on the ground in many places. The Southern coastal plain was once covered with thousands of acres of wetlands, and many remain even after extensive drainage projects. Despite cyclical droughts, the Plantation South has ample water for irrigation thanks to its many streams and rivers. Only in the past few decades has overdevelopment and the drought cycle made water scarcity an issue

In the Plantation South, the mild weather, ample moisture, flat terrain, and thick, rock-free, fertile soil set the stage for agricultural success. The only obstacle to achieving this success was millions of trees. As any gardener knows, food crops need sunlight to thrive. The region’s Native Americans developed an ingenious way of dealing with the dense Southern woodland.

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