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Gardening at the beach

By Louisa Cameron

Ruth Knopf, an internationally known rosarian, grew masses of roses, mostly heritage varieties, in her garden on Sullivan’s Island. Ruth is no longer with us, but she was generous with her knowledge and her plants and was instrumental in establishing the rose garden at Boone Hall. The Natchitoches Noisette pink rose she rooted and gave us seeded itself and we now have five or six of these disease-resistant remontant beauties thriving in our garden.

A past master’s garden

One of Charleston’s well-known expert gardeners also chose to live on a barrier island near the city and maintains a meticulously kept property with paths that meander through shade out to full sun. A pair of welcoming gates at either end of a privacy hedge are set back a few feet from the street and help stage the entrance to this well-thought-out charming garden. Through these gates, grass paths lined with flowering shrubs and perennials lead into an octagon shaped lawn. Each of the eight sides has a different mix of plants suited to the area’s exposure, slope, and views from the front porch of the house.

The lawn and its surrounding area flood during heavy rains, so the owners had drains installed and did research on plant material that can tolerate standing water. The result is a beautiful mix of grasses, ferns, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and a sunny area of potted succulents. Cuphea, salvia, ageratum and Muhlenbergia capillaris “white cloud” can withstand both some salt and some standing water and all make an appearance in the areas that flood the most. Muhlenbergia, commonly called pink muhly, and oddly not included in Hortus III, is locally known as sweet grass. Muhlenbergia capillaris var. filipes is used to make the prized baskets sold at coastal roadside stands and traditionally on the sidewalks of Meeting Street in downtown Charleston.

More salvias, goldenrod, and asclepias (butterfly weed) dominate the deep bed on the inside of the street front. Canna lilies are liberally scattered throughout and come in a wide range of yellows, oranges, and reds. The foliage somewhat resembles the leaves of corn stalks and can be solid or variegated. These are sturdy bulbs that reliably come back year after year, tolerate very wet conditions and spread rapidly. Spiky variegated agaves in pots provide texture and contrast.

In part shade, under trees that screen neighbors, coleus and other annuals such as plectranthus blend with farfugium (commonly called the tractor seat plant), variegated grasses, dwarf palms, mahonia, camellias and aspidistra. Maidenhair ferns are a particularly light and airy touch throughout, adding pale color, texture, and an elegant shape. Shell gingers and blue ginger are also planted in the shade.

Hyam’s Nursery on James Island, which our gardener frequents, has a printout on salt tolerant plants and an accompanying guide for how to plant to ensure proper protection from direct wind and spray. Included are shrubs, trees, herbs, vines, roses, and bulbs. The nursery also maintains a list of plants for wet sites. Annuals are not included on either list.

A connoisseur’s garden

Our friend, Blaine Ewing, and his wife also live on “The Island” and are both superb gardeners. My husband and I were recently invited by Blaine to drive over and visit in the garden for a second time in warm weather. I was amazed at the plethora of summer bloom. Everything he had planted was thriving, spilling out of pots, falling over the paths, climbing way up into the trees, and encroaching on the lawn.

Years ago, the Ewings had a major flooding problem, made amusingly evident when their son launched a small sailboat in the backyard. Gardening was not out of the question, but it was extremely frustrating. So, our determined friend worked with the local authorities on specific drainage and ordered truckload after truckload of topsoil. Pooling rainwater was no longer a problem and the fresh soil, carefully amended with manure and compost, was rich and ready for hundreds of plants. It has taken years of hard, dedicated happy work to make this charming garden and it is a delight to view.

A low picket fence separates the front garden from the street, and another defines a middle garden to one side of the house. Plumbago tumbles over the front beds displaying masses of baby blue flowers against the painted white house and porch. Gates help confine the dog but offer a gracious welcome when left open for expected visitors. The gates did not keep out the rabbits, however, which had evidently feasted on the once glorious gingers planted in large clumps when we had our tour. We saw one of the culprits that gave us an arrogant stare before slipping away into a nearby thicket.

It’s not a huge garden, but because the space is divided into areas with different small landscapes and vistas, it seems large. There’s a wooden plank patio with plants that thrive in pots, a walkway with special interest plants, an island bed of riotous color, a grass walk past shade plants, and a huge pot or two spilling over with foliage and blossoms. Unusual specimens such ixora and a ti plant “red sister” flourish among the usual lantana, grasses, pentas, roses, salvias, begonias, spiderwort, hydrangeas and vincas. Hardy gloxinia, (Sinningia) came from Plant Delights nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina. It has tubular flowers and has tolerated the heat and humidity. Acanthus, or “bears’ britches,” produces the leaf that is carved on most Corinthian columns and sends up a tall stem of white flowers tinted with purple and magenta. It prefers the shade and was blooming under a well-pruned live oak when we visited.

Jatropha, a tropical evergreen shrub or small tree has luscious red flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, but all parts of the plant are poisonous. Aloe looks exotic but is hardy here and spreads nicely. Its tall orange tube-shaped flowers and strong spiked leaves add to a tropical feel to any area where planted. Gingers thrive when the rabbits go elsewhere to find something tastier. Bletilla, the ground orchid, blooms low to the ground along with other pretty groundcovers such as sedums. Chinese privet and loropetalum bushes color the background in chartreuse and maroon, respectively. Tibouchina, pink and white gaura, yellow solidago and white althea, orange cuphea, purple agastache, brilliant orange tithonia (Mexican torch sunflower), crocosmia, alstroemeria, toad lily, and other perennials and bulbs light up the summer beds.

Oaks, hollies, magnolias, loquats, and crape myrtles border the sides and rear of the garden and are filled in with pittosporum, cleyera, and other shrubs for background, privacy, and some protection from salt spray. Pruning is a necessity not only for keeping growth in scale, but also for the appearance and the health of the trees.

There are always pots of new plant varieties set out to be planted after careful consideration of the perfect locations. Experimentation, trial and error, study of light and shade and soil amendment are hallmarks of the Ewings’ success, along with diligent weeding, deadheading and clipping. Constantly changing with the seasons and with the whims of climate, this garden is a work of island art.

Louisa Huger Pringle Cameron is a native Charlestonian married to Price Cameron, a retired plastic surgeon. She is the author of three books on the gardens of Charleston, enjoys duplicate bridge and is a proud grandmother of three.


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