If you’re looking for a garden design that pushes beyond conventional rows of clipped boxwood and brick paving, stroll south of Broad Street in downtown Charleston. Be on the lookout for a pair of Charleston-green wooden gates that float over two light-colored, irregularly shaped stones and stand tiptoe to peek through the rungs between the gates’ rectangular openings. Although you won’t see much, at least you might catch a glimpse of one of the Holy City’s finest and most exciting new-yet-old historic gardens.
Standing near these gates is a 1700s Charleston Single House. Its age suggests that the garden you’re trying to get a glimpse of was also once colonial. Owners Pooh and George Gephart surmise that this garden’s original purpose was probably utilitarian and perhaps held livestock or horses. With this in mind, they tried to imagine what this small plot of land might have looked like in the 18th century. Thus began the adventure of trying to add bucolic innuendo into an area primarily intended for formal and casual outdoor entertainment.
The result is a stunning tribute to the land’s original function. Created and constructed by Carolina Landscape, the garden’s feel, with the exception of the formal patio setting, is natural and slightly wild. But don’t let the abundance of textures from sun-loving evergreen shrubs, perennials and grasses fool you. This garden design is the product of careful calculation and eloquent execution. Carolina Landscape’s owner, Derek Wade, noted in the horticulture community for his commitment to creative solutions that push boundaries, says that “any plan has to work before it’s pretty.”
Those stones beneath the front gates are part of a majestic mosaic of irregularly shaped, gargantuan slabs of bluestone that fill the center courtyard. Conceived and constructed by Wade and his team of expert landscapers, they’re the centerpiece of a breathtaking perennial garden that grows between tall walls and a Charleston Single House piazza. However, the bluestones’ most extraordinary feature is the embellishment of sedums, thyme and dwarf Mondo that encircles each paver. These ground-hugging plants offer complementary textures and hues that accentuate the individual shape of each stone while creating an organic cohesiveness to the overall design.
Gephart says that what appeals to his wife and him “is the magic that Derek created, especially because of the perennials.” Planted in communities instead of sequestered by varieties, the overall goal is to have a sparkle of color somewhere in the garden throughout the year. To achieve this always-blooming effect, Carolina Landscape chose perennials that are either native or naturalized to the Lowcountry.
In autumn, the Gepharts’ perennial garden is filled with shades of yellow, white and hues of blue. All are capable of providing continual color until first frost, which usually occurs around mid-December on the Charleston peninsula. Three varieties of Salvia—Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue,’ Salvia greggii ‘White’ and Salvia leucantha, which is vibrant purple—are comingled with Achillea ‘Desert Eve Yellow,’ Coreopsis solanna ‘Golden Sphere’ and Helenium amarum ‘Dakota Gold.’
In marked contrast, the raised patio is constructed from diamond-shaped bluestone, which creates a formal setting for entertainment and lounging. Tucked at the back of this property, a pair of windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) flanks the stone deck, while two mature ‘Natchez’ crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia x ‘Natchez’) keep them company. These trees, plus a matching set of young ‘Brodie’ Eastern red cedars that overlook the “countryside,” provide a sense of human scale to the nearby architecture and create the illusion that this modest-sized garden is larger than it is.
Decorative ironwork, including a variety of historic gates that the Gepharts sent down from Philadelphia, is strategically hung on brick walls. Fragrant confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) covers trellises as well as a discreetly positioned rolling wire gate that hides the bane of all downtown Charleston dwellers—rolling trash receptacles.
What do the Gepharts like best about their old-yet-new city landscape? “That garden will continue to transform itself,” they say. “Every year will be a new experience.”
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.