My Daddy had a very green thumb. He had over 600 camellias on his James Island property, he grew cut flowers, had a veggie garden overrun with tomatoes, green onions, bell peppers and the occasional corn, watermelon and bok choy. Based on all that exposure, I should be a master gardener. But growing up, we basically just did what we were told. As he got older and couldn’t maintain his garden, he would create ritualistic events where he would set a date and require all family members to meet at the house to “gib”* the camellias. My friends think that since I have gibbed camellias, surely I am a master gardener…
Because of my Daddy, I grew up with a great appreciation for nature, plants, and flowers. And while I have used that appreciation to volunteer as a Park Angel, my only real gardening talent is taking direction, pulling weeds, cutting flowers, and occasionally gibbing camellias. As much as I want to be, I am not a very good gardener. I am more of a putzer. I like to putz around in a garden that has already been established. I like to try to not kill plants. I love watching things grow, but I am usually nervously waiting to see if I watered it too much, neglected it too much, and crossing my fingers to see if it will survive. Whenever I bought a new plant, Daddy would say “why don’t you just kill it now and put it out of it’s misery”. Just keeping plants alive is a real accomplishment for me.
When we decided to restore our historic family home, I felt a sense of purpose and responsibility. And because of the legacy of my Daddy’s gardening skills, I felt that I needed to also deliver on a yard that he would be proud of and that I could manage. Finding someone to help me design the yard was mandatory. I know my husband was a little skeptical after we spent quite the budget on the house that we would need to spend MORE money on the yard. But I knew that I was going to need help when it came to the design and plant selection for our yard. And, I knew I needed someone who would appreciate the fact that I had over 35 camellias that were going to be planted in our very small yard. Camellias I had propagated from my Daddy’s collection. Some were favorites of mine and some were ones he had cultivated and registered with the American Camellia Society: Rupie’s Charleston, Henny Drews, English Kuhne Drews, Betty Drews, Georgia National Fair. Having these camellias in the yard was non-negotiable.
On one of my many visits to Hyams Garden Center, I asked if they knew of any landscape designers. Bella Blooms Design was on the list and when I called Rockell, I knew I had found my girl! Rockell grew up on James Island (like me) and started working at Hyams Garden Center in high school and college and it’s what got her into horticulture. She started Bella Blooms in 2008 with her husband. She is a little ball of energy and light with a big smile and happy face kiss emojis in her text messages. She is managing a successful business, raising 2 little kids, supervising her three male workhorses (husband and brother included) and somehow she manages to create beautiful spaces for her clients with love, care and all kinds of positive energy. She literally saved me from myself.
When I was growing up, the backyard of this house had a greenhouse. It had turned into a dirt yard, with chickens and a homemade fire pit, during its time as rental property. So I needed the landscaping plan to be better than a chicken coop but not quite as ambitious as a greenhouse. Rockell developed a landscape plan and helped us create phases to manage the install timing and cost. The plan also allowed me to get my putzing in and plant a few things that were low risk. Our first phase focused on getting the front yard grass in and Rockell created some pretty planters that I am sure I am getting credit for with the neighbors. We added 3 palmetto trees along the side of the house to hopefully create privacy as they mature, and we kept the hydrangeas that have been a visual element in almost all of the old pictures I can find of the house. This was also the time where I transplanted over 35 camellias to the backyard (and yes, I lost a couple in the process). We then added topsoil but this proved to be deadly for some of the camellias. Topsoil is very rich and with the extra rain we got a couple of camellias started to look like they had never been watered when in fact they were getting too much water. It was emergency time now as one of camellias was named after me and it is the only one I had in the family’s possession. I recruited some expert advice from Rockell, and horticulturists with the Charleston Parks Conservancy. They all recommended getting it out of the saturated soil and plant it in a container to see how it fairs (so far so good as of this writing). Rockell finished the back yard with caladiums, giant leopard plants, elephant ears and she added liriope as a border along with brick path and patio. She repurposed the hearth tile we had salvaged from the original fireplaces to create a landing area in front of the Charleston Battery Bench. And as importantly, she edited and rearranged the random plants I bought, because I couldn’t help myself, and she created a small, manageable space for me to have some annuals every year. Because I like to just putz around in the yard and while I am really not that good at it, I do like to call myself a gardener.
*Gib is Camellia Society speak for gibberellic acid. It involves pinching out a bud and putting droplets of gibberellic acid into the tiny bud cup. This allows for the remaining bud to flower into a bigger, show-ready bloom. It is basically an approved form of doping camellias for bigger blooms.