No one ever truly owns an old garden. Caring for one that’s been in existence for centuries— even when no apparent notoriety or historical significance is attached to the property— is a monumental responsibility. So, imagine what it must feel like to become the keeper of a family heirloom, a botanical jewel that was designed by a renowned landscape architect, and made famous by one’s mother.
Marty Whaley Adams Cornwell (martywhaleyadams .com), the youngest daughter of celebrated Charleston gardener Emily Whaley, assumed ownership of her mother’s property two decades ago after her mother’s death. While Mrs. Whaley always loved sharing her garden with strangers, her book, Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden (1997), made her 30-by- 110-foot plot of paradise internationally famous. Reputedly, it is the most visited private garden in the United States.
The garden is tucked behind a prerevolutionary residence and off a narrow street in garden- and history-obsessed downtown Charleston. Cornwell, a nationally recognized artist, was faced with the rather daunting task of maintaining her mother’s treasure. She knew that the garden had good bones— thanks to her mother’s collaboration with legendary landscape architect Loutrel Briggs—but as in any garden, predominant plantings fade with age and herbaceous borders always need updating.
Enter entrepreneur and Renaissance man Paul Saylors, proprietor of Paul Saylors, Gentleman Gardener (paulsay lors.com), who first met Cornwell at a horticultural event. This must have been a Claude- Monet-meets-Thomas-Jefferson moment, especially because the Whaley garden is a juxtaposition of neocolonial and French romanticism design.
Saylors’ formal education is unique in that he purposely combined horticulture with historic preservation. A preservationist at heart, and an ardent gardener since his early teens, Saylors’ training and rare talents allow him to see a landscape through a lens of past and present. This, says Saylors, lets him “fold both in.” Add Cornwell’s artistic eye for perspective and color, and the result becomes a stunning tribute to both the designer and the grand lady who once loved this garden.
Briggs divided this small, narrow backyard space “into two parts and then used the sun and shade to create differing moods in each,” wrote Mrs. Whaley in her book. The overall design is elliptical, and visitors are often enthralled with Briggs’ flawless execution of balance between the formal garden, which is located near the house, and the Romantic garden, which is situated at the opposite end. The symmetrical placement of large shrubs in the formal section is somewhat softened by old Charleston brick edging along the borders. A shallow, circular reflecting pool at the central axis provides a visual segue between both garden styles.
Have Cornwell and Saylors altered the appearance of this landscape? Not really, although some of the original boxwood has been removed. Although this pained Saylors, it’s hard to imagine that Mrs. Whaley would disapprove. A firm believer in horticultural experiments, she was always trying out new plants in the borders. The current caregivers are continuing this tradition and have already sketched out plans for next spring’s flowering acquisitions.
Of course, not all gardening aspects are artistic. While trying to figure out how to improve drainage, Saylors’ history sleuthing uncovered the fact that a creek once babbled near the garden’s edge. After a French tile drainage system was installed, the health and appearance of the circular lawn improved. To avoid distracting from Briggs’ old Charleston brick edging design, drains are hidden beneath the bricks.
Before opening Paul Saylors, Gentleman Gardener on Spring Street in downtown Charleston, Saylors held positions at the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Charleston Library Society. Both were a perfect match for someone who relishes history and horticulture. The Preservation Society afforded him the opportunity to present programs on historic preservation and Charleston architecture, while the Library Society, America’s second oldest private circulating library, maintains nearly 400 years of horticultural knowledge. An active member of the Southern Garden History Society (southerngardenhistory .org), he will attend the prestigious and highly selective Attingham Summer School in the United Kingdom this summer (attinghamtrust.org). In his never-ending pursuit to learn more about historic landscape preservation, Saylors is also a graduate of the Historic Landscape Institute, located but where else? At Mr. Jefferson’s Monticello.
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.