Thursday, May 20, 2010

Down the Garden Path called I-20

I hit the road with some gardening buddies a few weeks ago for a tour of a few gardens around the state. We left home at 7:30 in the morning, traveling east toward our first stop, a private garden in the Pee Dee, where Beech Island native, Jenks Farmer is curator.

Now you can imagine that a private garden that has its own curator is a pretty wonderful place, though it is hard to imagine how the sandy flat soil, good for growing tobacco and soybeans, could ever host such a breathtaking ornamental garden.
Carnivorous pitcher plants, ablaze in chartreuse and red, grow near the farm’s offices. The bog garden is fed with water collected in a cistern on the building’s roof.

Jenks is partial to bulbs, and a meandering path through the garden takes you past spent narcissus and burgeoning iris and crinum lilies oversewn with multicolored Toadflax. There are dozens of places to sit and ponder around this garden, many with a view of the pond. Purple Louisiana Iris frames the view from one spot, Spider lilies frame another. Pomegranates were in flower this day.

Take a seat under the thatched roof of the tea house and swing awhile in the swing that’s as comfortable as a sofa, or move along to the gazebo, where, if you’re lucky like we were, you happen upon Botanist John Nelson, the USC professor who writes the “Mystery Plant” column in the Sunday paper. Dr. Nelson sat a spell with us to explain what he was doing with some plants he was collecting (pressing them in a homemade press he had with him) and to tell us all about the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University where he studies and teaches.

The $10 fee that’s collected from the folks on this tour – you can give more in you like, goes toward support of the herbarium. Like Dr. Harry Shealy here in Aiken, Dr. Nelson was quite the raconteur and we left his company reluctantly, in time to eat lunch and move on to our next stop, Pearl Fryar’s garden in Bishopville, South Carolina.

If you travel over I-20 between Columbia and I-95, you’ve probably come within a mile of Pearl Fryar’s amazing topiary garden. Take a left off the main road, down an ordinary street, with neat ranch style houses and well-kept yards, and you come to Pearl’s place. Fryar got his start, the story goes, back in 1984, when he decided he wanted to have the yard-of-the-month in Bishopville. He began sculpting a few evergreens near his front door and he liked the result.

Today he has at least 145 trees and shrubs in the garden surrounding his home. They are as intricate and expressive as any sculpture, made all the more impressive by the modest man who created them. There’s even a movie about him, “A Man Named Pearl” and he has addressed audiences as diverse as a garden club at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the local elementary school in Bishopville. His work has been exhibited at Spoleto and the State Museum, and a story about him appeared in Newsweek Magazine.

South Carolina has dozens, maybe hundreds of private gardens from the mountains to the sea that exhibit the iconoclastic creativity and imagination for which South Carolinians are often known. Some of those gardens are open to the public all year (Fryar’s is open Tuesday through Saturday). Others, such as the first one we visited, are open only a few times a year and by invitation only. Both these gardens have websites with plant lists and more information about how to get an invitation if you want one.

Pearl Fryar’s garden is a preservation project of the Garden Conservancy, an organization whose goal is to save and preserve America’s exceptional gardens for the education and enjoyment of the public. His is the only South Carolina garden in that group. Elizabeth Lawrence’s Charlotte garden is the only other one nearby. He is in pretty fine company.

The Garden Conservancy sponsors Open Garden Days in twenty-one states across the country, mostly in regions other than the southeast (Charlotte and Raleigh have Open Garden Days in September).

Maybe Southern gardeners consider everyday Open Garden Day. Like Pearl Fryar or Aiken gardener Linda Christine, we love our gardens and we want other people to love them too. People who tour gardens aren’t likely to steal the silver or write graffiti on the garage wall. Still, it might be nice to dedicate a few days when we know it’s OK to ramble through your neighbor’s rose beds. What do you think?

Click to learn more about the first garden we visited
Click to find out about Garden Open Days and the Garden Conservancy
click to see photos of Pearl Fryar's topiary