Patti McGee deftly incorporates exuberant tropicals into a classic framework



THE WEATHER IS GOLDEN, AND THE LIGHT glazes the old brick walls. The air feels soft, the sun sweetly warm, and palmettos are rustling in the breeze. Why would anyone garden anywhere else but Charleston? These are moments when the Low Country seems like paradise, a place where the mild subtropical climate makes it possible to grow an astonishing number of interesting plants.

I have come to Charleston, South Carolina, in search of Patti McGee, as enthusiastic and knowledgeable a gardener as one could hope to find anywhere. But our meeting is not taking place in spring, when Charleston gardens are traditionally said to be at their best, flush with azaleas, camellias, and jasmine. No, it’s fall, and McGee’s garden is simply wonderful, glowing with tropical plants skillfully mixed with choice southern classics.

Adventuresome, imaginative, and a contrarian from the soles of her gardening clogs to the brim of her gardening hat, McGee wants her garden filled with interest all through the year, but especially in fall, when she just might have time to catch her breath and enjoy it. Surveying the rich array of plants, you might assume McGee—a tall, blue-eyed blonde who energetically volunteers for the Garden Conservancy, the Southern Garden History Society, and the Charleston Horticultural Society—had spent her whole life gardening. But though her mother was an avid gardener, it was not until the 1980s, when her own two children were grown, that the passion fully took hold. A pivotal moment came in 1989, when she was invited to join the Advisory Committee of the Garden Conservancy and went to a meeting at Winterthur. “Everyone was using Latin names for plants. It was so intimidating, but it was exciting, too, because these people were all mad about gardening,” she says. “I began going to symposia. I heard Marco Polo Stufano lecture, and he opened my eyes to designing with plants.” McGee was in her element, and soon was driving hundreds of miles to shop at nurseries.

Everywhere McGee went, she asked for gardening advice, but she often found that even the most experienced nurserymen and gardeners were stymied by Charleston’s famous climatic gyrations. Situated on the 32nd parallel, between subtropical and warm temperate, Charleston has a climate that is officially a warm USDA Zone 8. Long hot summers see the thermometer sometimes rise above 100°F, accompanied by high humidity. Typical winter lows are in the high 20s, though the city is known to suffer occasional hard freezes. The hurricane season, from July to November, brings tropical downpours that saturate the poorly draining acid soil.

In 1989–the year Hurricane Hugo decimated Charleston, it snowed, and a prolonged freeze gripped the city—the undaunted McGee decided she’d outgrown her downtown courtyard garden and wanted something larger. In 1992, the family moved to another historic house in the district with the almost unheard of luxury of a quarter-acre lot.

It came with a boxwood hedge along the drive, masses of azaleas, a ryegrass lawn, and the distinction of a design by the eminent landscape architect Loutrel Briggs. Many of Briggs’s favorite elements—curving beds, orchard stone paving, and massed azaleas—had been incorporated into the garden, yet the Greek Revival architecture of the house seemed strangely at odds with the garden. The McGees decided it was time to rework the layout. They reduced the size of the overpowering driveway, donated the azaleas to new owners, extended the depth of the beds, and created a formal, 22-foot-square lawn to balance the elegant lines of the house. Working with landscape architect Sheila Wertimer and garden consultant Beverly Rivers, they established an axis between the front and back gardens and pools for water plants.

Opposite: Patti McGee. Below: The hidden walk, as seen from the driveway, invites visitors to stroll. Its Tennesse orchard stone pavers are edged with clumps of Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’, globe-shaped box, and large pots of Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’ (left) and Dicksonia antarctica (right). The crape myrtle trunks on the left support a Lady Banks rose.

TENDER FAVORITES When it came time to plant, McGee turned to bold plants. “My spring color is orange, and my spring flower is Clivia miniata. It’s the signature plant of my garden. I grow them in huge containers,” she says. “At the end of the season, I run to all the local nurseries and I just scoop up all the leftovers that no one wants.”

Using tender plants lets McGee play with foliage. At one time, she had calla lilies in the back pool, but found that their lush foliage declined and weathered too quickly. Now she chooses alocasias and colocasias, keeping them in pots and enjoying their dramatic foliage for months.

McGee’s garden abounds with unusual plants, many rarely seen in American gardens. Odontomena strictum, an eight-foot-tall member of the acanthus family from tropical America, has large, waxy, red flower spikes and lustrous leaves. The tropical clerodendrums have become favorites, like C. speciossimum from Java, with its rich green foliage and large panicles of scarlet flowers, and the blue butterfly clerodendrum, C. myricoides ‘Ugandense’, from West Africa. Plectranthus also play a role, with silvery P. argentatus as a standard and P. cilatus, with its golden leaves undercoated with deep burgundy, and P. saccatus, its loose spires of lavender-blue flowers combined with the red Abyssinian banana, Ensete ventricosum ‘Red Stripe’. Calamondin oranges, xCitrofortunella microcarpa, grow year round, and old-fashioned shrimp plants, Justicia brandegeana and J. carnea, are garden stalwarts. In the sunny bed, McGee displays abutilons, including her favorite yellow ‘Moonchimes’, which she plants with Canna ‘Bengal Tiger’, Salvia madrensis, and S. leucantha.

Salvias are among her favorite plants. “I especially like S. leucantha with all that great fuzzy purple,” she says, “and I love the canary yellow of S. madrensis. If kept in the right place, it can be wonderful. And I grow lots of S. guaranitica. I really like ‘Indigo Spires’, but I think its blue competes too much with the purple of S. guaranitica, so I have to be careful of that. And I love S. splendens ‘Van-Houttei’, with all those garnet-red, late-season blooms.”

HARDY SELECTIONS Despite her fascination with tropicals, it is the structure and form of the winter-hardy plants that McGee considers key to her garden. Here, too, she looks for foliage and texture. She considers boxwood essential, and finds that the hybrids do best in Charleston, such as Korean box (Buxus koreana ‘Winter Green’ and ‘Winter Gem’). She also finds B. harlandii excellent, but it’s more vase shaped and thus hard to train into a globe. Buxus microphylla ‘Kingsville’, an excellent edger, defines the driveway. Finally, there are some local selections, such as ‘Beckett’s’, a putative cross between B. harlandii and ‘Kingsville’. It grows taller than the others, and McGee uses it for bigger hedges and domes. And no Charleston garden would be complete without roses. “Early Noisette roses were very important in Charleston’s history,” she says, “so I have ‘Champneys’ Pink Cluster’ and ‘Reve d’Or’, as well as the polyantha rose ‘Perle d’Or’.”

Plant/Plan Key

  1. guest house

  2. raised pool, clivias in pots

  3. Magnolia x soulangeana

  4. Photin x fraseri

  5. patio and portico

  6. Quercus virginiana

  7. garage

  8. Magnolia grandiflora

  9. citrus and tropicals bed

  10. beds edged in boxwood

  11. raised pool with fountain

  12. Parkinsonia aculeata

  13. mixed evergreen border

  14. lawn

  15. hidden walk

Patti McGee’s picks for texture

Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’ and F.j. ‘Crispata’, leopard plant and crested leopard plant

Dryopteris erythrosora, autumn fern

Adiantum capillus-veneris, Southern maidenhair fern

Tetrapanax papyriferus, rice paper plant

Fatsia japonica, Japanese fatsia

Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’, C. ‘Illustris’

Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, sweet box

Parkinsonia aculeata, Jerusalem thorn

1. Clivia miniata in orange, McGee’s spring color. 2. Dicksonia antarctica 3. Parkinsonia aculeata 4. Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ 5. Clerodendrum xspeciosum (also called C. buchananii) 6. The lawn end of the hidden walk 7. Canna ‘Bengal Tiger’ with the yellow spikes of Salvia madrensis.

McGee also likes the foliage of mahonias in winter, particularly M. xmedia ‘Arthur Menzies’ and M. ‘Charity’. And she says that M. bealei, with fragrant yellow flowers, is fantastic when in full bloom. McGee also likes plain Nandina domestica, which she plants with camellias and Podocarpus macrophyllus–southern or Japanese yew—which makes an excellent hedge. “You see it all over Charleston,” she says. “For me, it’s the backdrop behind my wrought-iron arch. I love hydrangeas. They give me such a long season here, especially the oakleaf hydrangea, H. quercifolia. I have ‘Snowflake’, which has great form from spring to fall. Hydrangeas really do look cool in the summer. My new favorite is H. macrophylla ‘Madame Emile Mouillere’. It’s a beautiful white and the heads have tiny flushes of pink as they age.”

Another McGee favorite is Parkinsonia aculeata, the Jerusalem thorn, a spiny shrub with compound leaves and large racemes of yellow flowers that can become a 20-foot tree. “It’s ten years old and it softens the view of my neighbor’s big wall when I look out to the garden,” McGee says. Laughing, she adds, “It’s my glorious weed, but I love it. It’s such a different texture and foliage to see in Charleston, and it puts a filmy screen between the live oak and the magnolia.”

Near the back drive grows a tall elegant fragrant tea olive, Osmanthus fragrans ‘San Jose’. Its scent floods the garden in late September. A majestic live oak, Quercus virginiana, forms the heart of the garden. Reaching out some 20 feet in all directions and more than 40 feet tall, it dominates the skyline. McGee treats its root area with great care.

LIVING SPACE Beyond the great pleasure she takes from her plants, McGee says that her garden fulfills another important role for her as a space for entertaining family and friends. “I feel I need my lawn,” she says. “I thought about making it into a reflecting pool, but it would have limited my enjoyment of the garden for having company. When we bought the house, people said to me that it was going to be a ‘grandmother’s garden,’ and you know they’re right. I look out and see the grandchildren playing and maybe hunting for Easter eggs and I’m so glad to be here.”

McGee entertains here year round. “Many of the old-time Charleston garden people were never here in summer,” she observes. “Once it got hot, they went to the mountains, and so they bedded things out when they came back in October. But I can be here in July and go out and sit on the piazza, and look out over the garden and just enjoy all those leaves. And of course I have to stay home to water!”

McGee is now considering new challenges. With a gleam in her eye, she says, “Do you know I’m getting interested in rock gardens? I joined the North American Rock Garden Society and attended a meeting. I was thinking I could put in a bed beside the path where there’s baking sun. If I did it as a scree—dug it out over by the wall and put in loads of sand—I could grow some interesting succulents. Rock gardens are not typically southern, but Elizabeth Lawrence grew alpines. I think the essence of gardening is experimenting.” H

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