British horticulturist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll once suggested that any garden can be tamed into an “impression of beauty and delight.” If she had visited Charleston, she would have promptly realized that our landscapes surpass mere impressions—with or without taming! The Lowcountry’s natural beauty has always inspired us to turn our private, as well as public, gardens into more than geographical spaces. As a result, Charleston’s gardens are celebrations of our profound sense of place.
Native Charlestonian Louisa Pringle Cameron eloquently presents this unique horticultural phenomenon in her third book, Charleston, City of Gardens. But instead of taking readers through yet another exclusive narrative and photographic tour of the city’s lower peninsula gardens, she also includes botanical gems situated outside the Historic District. What makes this journey so special is that along the way Cameron—who is an accomplished gardener and watercolorist—explains the principles of garden design. She also demystifies the rules of plant nomenclature—a subject that frequently sends even seasoned gardeners scurrying into the shrubbery. Aspiring garden designers will find her stunning photographs inspirational. I recently had the pleasure of spending an afternoon at the Charleston Library Society on King Street with Cameron. The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.
My favorite part in your book is reading about your garden. Where did you start?
I just started at the beginning when we moved there. I have a very talented husband, Price, and he loves nothing more than a challenge. The first thing that happened was we acquired the back lot. Then we had to tear down a concrete wall that separated the two properties. Price would just sit [in the garden] day after day and think of things. But it’s our creation. We did it together. It’s not one person’s garden, it’s our garden.
What would you tell someone who acquires an old and faded garden in Charleston?
First, you must get the garden clean. Get rid of every old pot, chair and bench. Get rid of trash trees. Keep only the better plants. Then you have to decide how you want the garden to function for you. For example, do you want it to be an outside room to have breakfast? Is part of it intended for children? Once you have the freedom of starting with a clean slate, adhere to design principles.
What advice do you offer to an inexperienced gardener who’s not from the Southeast and wants to take up gardening in Charleston?
Go on the garden tours and take notes. Take walks and take notes. Photograph what you love. Talk to gardeners. Gardeners are generous and kind people. I also recommend local authors’ books on gardening, and I always tell them to get someone who’s good at garden design. Go to a garden center and 116 CSD just look. Take pictures of plants and their labels. Go home and think about what you like and look up information on plant size. A lot of people make the mistake of planting things that get too big too soon.
But how does one deal with proportion?
Proportion is difficult because things grow so fast in Charleston. It’s something you have to learn. It’s very helpful to have tuteurs [vertical supports for climbing or twining plants]. Price designed ours for the garden, and Mr. Dieter at Charleston Awing and Metal executed them.
Why are some gardens more successful than others?
Because they adhere to design principles, including repetition, texture, color, atmosphere, symmetry and rhythm.
Do you see any gardening trends—any repetition from years past that are becoming popular again?
I think that possibly a return to some formality is coming back. People like the control and it’s pleasing, particularly in small spaces. But I have also recently seen some wonderful informality of putting really comfortable furniture in the garden. But in general with trends, there are none.
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.