Gardens and Gardening

Both home and commercial gardening were essential to the survival of colonial settlements in South Carolina.

Both home and commercial gardening were essential to the survival of colonial settlements in South Carolina. Early commercial growing was limited to fruit and vegetable crops grown near towns, and consisted mostly of small plots surrounded by wattle or split rail “worm” fences. Home gardening included mostly food crops that could be pickled or stored dry, as the winter climate was too warm for root cellars. Few vegetables were eaten raw, and being more fibrous than today’s varieties, were usually overcooked. To this day, the term sallet or sallet greens is applied by some rural South Carolinians to greens grown to be cooked: mustard, turnip, and rape, for example.

Colonists from the Caribbean brought tropical food crops that thrived in South Carolina, as well as slaves who knew how to grow and prepare them. Sweet potatoes, okra, southern peas, sweet and hot peppers soon augmented cole crops such as cabbage and collards, and root crops that British settlers knew so well. Indian traders helped to introduce the food crops of Native Americans to colonists, most importantly the “Three Sisters”: maize (corn), beans, and squash. The corn was of kinds later known as “field corn” and was grown principally to be dried, stored, and shelled for winter use. Beans were grown mostly to be dried, shelled, and stored, sometimes with hot pepper pods to repel weevils. Squash varieties were mostly hard-shelled, winter-keeper types, not the early maturing “summer squash” that are so popular today. Settlers from France had a long history of eating fresh vegetables, especially salad greens, and they brought seeds with them. However, they had to learn the seasons in the lowcountry before they could grow greens successfully.

Ornamentals came into colonial gardens more slowly than food crops. Curiously, during the period when early plant explorers such as André and François Michaux, John and William Bartram, Mark Catesby, and others were gathering seeds and starts of native American ornamental species to ship to England and the Continent, settlers were slow in introducing the same species into their landscapes. The Michaux garden grew for sale more than 450 varieties of mostly native species. Perhaps native ornamentals caught on slowly because only the landed elite among the settlers had much experience with ornamental crops or the leisure time to grow them. Some of the commoners had grown food crops in the “old country,” but others from large towns in England and from Ulster knew little or nothing about cultivating plants of any sort.

Seed production was difficult in the Southeast because of plant diseases and seed-eating insects that infested crops. Therefore even the colonists who had the foresight to bring seeds with them soon had to turn to seed and bulb companies in Europe for supplies. Bulbs reproduced somewhat better than seeds but kinds that could not adapt to the hot, humid summers soon disappeared.

Indigo, rice, and cotton soon produced wealth sufficient to fund the construction of fine homes and gardens, on plantations and in towns. The brick-walled Charleston garden of Henry Laurens, for example, measured 600 by 450 feet. Plantation gardens were much larger, especially those along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, such as Drayton Hall and Middleton Place. DuBose Heyward described the lowcountry gardens of South Carolina succinctly: “formal gardens blended from their very creation ordered lines with natural beauty, for even the most formal intentions failed to achieve the same results here amid wistful live oaks and Spanish moss, where forests were fragrant with magnolia and jessamine, as in the more sedate landscapes of northern Europe. So the English-planned gardens of Carolina grew and mellowed into gardens unlike any others in the whole world.”

Backcountry colonists had less time for ornamentals, and concentrated on basic food crops and spent considerable time clearing land for hay, grain, and vegetables. For many years, upcountry diets consisted mostly of meat from game animals, potatoes (“Irish” potatoes at first), grain, and the occasional dish of “pulse” or “pease” (dried peas or beans). Meanwhile, lowcountry planters brought in plants from all over the world. Charleston was among the first ports of entry for camellias and crape myrtle from Asia, and tropical and semi-tropical ornamentals from the Caribbean. The plant explorer André Michaux and his son François propagated Asian and native American species in their Charleston nursery and sold started plants for town and country gardens. The wealth accumulated by planters allowed them to travel to Europe and bring back inspiration for grand gardens and, sometimes, landscape designers to create them.

The first great boom in home horticulture had to await the coming of accessible education, after which ordinary people could read seed and plant catalogs, seed packets, and later, farm magazines. Until that time, most ornamentals were spread around families and neighbors as “passalong plants” that one could see growing and did not need to read about. Home horticulture began to flourish by the mid–nineteenth century, when great nurseries such as those at Pomaria, South Carolina, and Fruitland in Augusta, Georgia, began to ship easy-to-grow deciduous shrubs and fruit and nut trees. During the first half of the nineteenth century, deciduous flowering shrubs had dominated landscapes, but after the Civil War, the rhododendron species known as “azaleas” and camellias began to bring color to southern landscapes during spring and fall months. The long, essentially green summer hiatus in gardens, seldom broken except by crape myrtles, persisted until the twentieth century when the American garden seed industry opened production on western irrigated lands, making flower and vegetable seeds less expensive and more reliable.

By the 1920s, municipalities began to accumulate enough money to do extensive plantings in parks, but no classical botanical gardens were built in South Carolina until well after World War II. Several gardens have become destinations for tourists from the United States and abroad: Brookgreen Gardens near Pawleys Island, Cypress Gardens at Moncks Corner, Edisto Memorial Gardens at Orangeburg, Kalmia Gardens of Coker College at Hartsville, Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place near Charleston, Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden at Columbia, the South Carolina Botanical Garden at Clemson University, Blythewood’s Singing Oaks Garden, and Swan Lake Iris Gardens at Sumter. Collectively, public gardens have had a huge impact on gardening education through their outreach programs.

Horticultural societies seldom caught on in the South, but garden clubs did. They flourished in nearly every town large enough to support a club. The impact of Master Gardeners on the level of horticultural sophistication in South Carolina became evident beginning in the 1980s, when courses offered to home gardeners allowed them to attain certification level in Master Gardening. Master Gardeners are trained by the Clemson University Extension Service to answer gardening questions and to further their gardening education through community projects.

Home gardening is America’s number one hobby, and with its abundant land, good water, and long growing seasons, South Carolina offers one of the best areas in the country for gardening for produce and pleasure. Northerners moving here often feel intimidated by the red clay or sandy coastal soils, and by the seemingly seamless planting seasons, but soon begin enjoying the opportunities they offer for producing year-round color and gourmet food crops.

Ballard, William Brunson. “Living Historical Horticulture Gardens for South Carolina.” Master’s thesis, Clemson University, 1971.

Rosenfeld, Lois G. The Garden Tourist 2001, Southeast: A Guide to Gardens, Garden Tours, Shows and Special Events. New York: Garden Tourist Press, 2001.

Savage, Henry J., and Elizabeth J. Savage. André and François-André Michaux. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986.

Shaffer, E. T. H. Carolina Gardens. 2d ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Gardens and Gardening
  • Author
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date May 18, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 4, 2022
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