A tour of three of Charleston's finest backyard gardens 

The Art of Gardening

This time of year, it is easy to find yourself intoxicated by the perfect blooms of potted flowers at a garden center and end up at the check-out line buying a cart full of plants with no idea what they are or where you will put them. With a long growing season, a warm climate, and the ability to grow an incredible range of plants here in the Lowcountry, it is no surprise that so many people are inspired to roll up their sleeves and dig in the dirt. But before you find yourself seduced into impulse plant purchases that may not be right for your lifestyle or yard, consider seeking a little inspiration and advice from a few local gardening gurus.

One local gardener who has mastered a number of these gardening styles is none other than Jim Martin, a man who has influenced so many of the beautiful public spaces in Charleston. By the time you have completed a full tour of his garden, it is hard to remember that you have ever been in another. Created with a circular flow, the house and garden ease seamlessly together, filled with unique treasures that speak to world travels and an eye for detail. Martin and his partner David Vegasky have spent the last decade making their garden a place to relax and entertain. Martin explains that in his home garden, "It is not about control. We have busy lifestyles and things are not always perfect in the garden and we make no apologies for that." Trust us, no apologies are necessary.

The tour begins with the intimate side garden which envelopes you with its secret nooks, cool shaded spaces, comfortable chairs, and ordered chaos of plants. Formerly the croquet green, its future was sealed when Martin and Vegasky redesigned it on a napkin at a pub in Asheville. The official transformation had its fateful start on Sept. 11, 2001, to which Vegasky noted, "I don't think of the tragedy, I think of what we created." The former patch of lawn was renovated by building up mounds of soil around a focal point, a tree given by Martin's former mentor, and then filled in with a variety of plants tolerant of part-shade. It was comforting to hear that such a beautiful garden was born on a napkin, built with what was available locally, and tended in their spare time.

Moving from one section of their garden to another is akin to walking from room to room in a home; they have created walls of foliage. I was completely surprised to discover an in-ground pool hiding around the bend, complete with brightly colored pots and an incredible array of bromeliads and succulents generally found in tropical climates. To ensure that Martin's tropical plants survive any cold temperatures during winter, he brings many of his plants onto his covered porch, a little trick that allows him to have a greater variety of cold sensitive plants.

Leaving the pool area on wooden walkways, the garden gives way to a fish pond complete with floating lilies and a covered swing built by Vegasky. The pond uses a combination of fish, filtering plants, oxygenating plants, and pumps to keep it lower maintenance. Providing partial shade to the pond is huge pecan tree, which at one time was the only thing in the backyard. It is hard to believe that the hundreds of plants in the garden were all selected, planted, and stewarded at the hands of these two busy men. Martin assures me that he is far from a plant snob, but he prefers utilizing low-maintenance native plants that are acclimated to the climate while providing habitat and food sources for local insects and animals. With hundreds of varieties of plants that are native to the Palmetto State, seven South Carolina nurseries specializing in selling them, and the support of the S.C. Native Plant Society, there are many opportunities to follow Martin's lead.

The tour ends in one of my favorite kinds of gardens, the edible variety. Simply referring to Martin's the raised beds of mustards, spinach, and herbs, as a "vegetable garden" seems to insult the beauty and structure of the space. The garden is surrounded by a picturesque fence and filled with raised wooden beds, covered sitting area built by Vegasky, pastel colored beehives, and a mural done by the famous Douglas Panzone.

So what advice does Martin have as we plan our spring gardens? "Green is the most important element in the garden," he says. "Interesting foliage is essential in the South because our season is so long. The foliage carries you through the season." He also stresses that a garden is a place to experiment and that gardeners should not to be afraid to make mistakes. To learn directly from Martin, join him at work with the Charleston Parks Conservancy through their public classes and the Park Angels program.

Experimentation is a big theme with another local gardener, Amy Johnson. "It is so fun to experiment in the garden and just see what happens," she say. It is apparent from Johnson's garden, which resembles an outdoor art studio, that a trial-and-error approach has been successful for her. Johnson uses plants, natural objects, and statues as her medium to create plant arrangements that often have individual themes to them. Susan McLeod Epstein with the Charleston Horticultural Society describes many of Johnson's creations as having an almost magical feel that conjure visions of fairies living among the plants. Johnson's use of natural objects in the garden, such as stones and sculptures, help to create a focal point and help keep the garden interesting throughout the season. The Society provides access to day trips, guest lectures, and workshops on gardening throughout the year.

For Johnson, she likes to keep the majority of her in pots because it "is easier to control their environment" by moving them around. She explains that this holds especially true for plants that need semi-dry soil or constant moisture. Selecting the appropriate pot is almost as important as selecting the correct plant to place in it. For high drainage, clay pots with large holes are ideal and for higher moister, a painted, metal, or plastic pot with smaller/less holes can do the trick. If you want to be adventurous and dabble in the world of water plants, then opt for an enclosed planter to retain the moisture during times of drought.

Many of Johnson's creations feature succulents, sedums, and cacti, plants with a preference for well-drained soils. Fellow desert styled gardeners Robert and Roxanne Werowinski, recently featured in Charleston magazine for their amazing collection in Riverland Terrace, also agree with the need for drainage. Roxanne suggests that people need to carefully observe their site to ensure the plants have a lot of winter sun, and they need to create well-draining mounds when planting into the ground. For Amy, she prefers the flexibility of planting in pots so she can select the soil and move the plants as needed throughout the year.

Johnson's advice for gardeners getting ready for the season is to browse the garden section at a local bookstore, head out for a garden tour, or visit a garden store for inspiration. Her favorite gardening book is Succulent Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin. Johnson is also a member of the Charleston Horticultural Society. There will also be plenty of opportunities to get inspired on garden tours this spring with the Historic Charleston Foundation Garden tours and events through April 21 and the Mt. Pleasant Old Village Home, Garden, and Art tour on April 22.

Numerous gardens featured on these tours showcase the more formal designs that can be traced back generations. One of these styles is the topiary garden, a practice of "training" live perennial plants into distinct shapes, creating live sculptures. The topiary garden represents the gardener with an eye for detail, steady hands, and more than anything, patience. Although there are tools such as cages and varieties of ivy that can be utilized to mimic topiary shapes, a true topiary garden is something that takes years to create. One of the most famous topiary artists in the region, Pearl Fryar, has gained national attention for the incredible sculptures he has shaped out of shrubs and trees. Although his personal garden is located in Bishopville, S.C., he had a hand in designing the Heart Garden, a public space off of Anson Street created for the 1997 Spoleto festival in recognition of ironworker Phillip Simmons. For gardeners interested in exploring the art of topiary, the plants used are evergreen, mostly woody, and have small leaves or needles with dense foliage such as holly, myrtle, bay laurel, and European box.

Regardless of what gardening style speaks to you, there are a number of resources, trainings, and events throughout the year being offered through the organizations mentioned above, as well at Trident Technical College, the Master Gardeners Program, and many local nurseries. To get free hands-on training, consider volunteering with community gardens groups, neighborhood gardening clubs, and youth gardening programs in your area.

Related Events

  • Charleston Horticultural Society (Clubs + Organizations)

    • 1 going/interested
  • Charleston Parks Conservancy (Volunteers)

    • Ongoing

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