Back in Bloom

Brie Williams
by Allston McCrady - South Carolina - April/May 2009

The most visited private garden in America takes on new life

Early to bed. Early to rise. Work like hell and fertilize. These pearls of wisdom were courtesy of the late, great Emily Whaley, who rocketed to garden stardom after her book, Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden, became a best seller. Visitors from around the country would show up on her doorstep hoping for a tour, and Emily often obliged, especially during April, her favorite month in the garden.

“Mama was an old shoe, and I hope I am, too,” says Marty Whaley Adams Cornwell, who now lives in her mother’s old home on Church Street. At first the task of maintaining such a famous garden was a daunting one. “I was brought to my knees with ‘What could I do?’ It was overwhelming. But thankfully I had Junior Robinson by my side. He has been gardening for our family for forty years.”

For a while after Emily’s death, Junior and Marty just kept the garden alive. “We didn’t do much, and it showed,” Marty says. But eventually, Marty’s nerve returned-—the nerve to make the garden her own. And if there’s one thing that Whaley women don’t lack, it’s nerve. Emily said it best: “Life is full of decisions and you better not waver and quaver over each one or you will stress yourself. You will die young and miss your seventies and eighties, which are two decades that can be a delight.”

The first to go was a Chinese Tallow or “popcorn” tree that had gotten too large. Next went a large maple, which had outgrown its spot. It had hidden what Emily called “borrowed landscaping”: the massive trunk of a neighbor’s live oak tree. Then went a camellia, which had been “spoiled” beneath the maple. After wrestling with the decision all summer, Marty asked, “Junior, what’s your judgment?” Junior said, “Cut it down.” The camellia was in Junior’s truck and gone in about a half hour. “It was such a relief, and allowed the garden to breathe again,” she says.

Then came the statuary. Marty made the bold decision to replace the focal point of the entire garden: a little boy holding a duck above the reflecting pool (a pool that, incidentally, is a haven for local birds, including the occasional duck or heron). In its place, Marty installed a marble maiden that she had inherited from an aunt and uncle’s plantation. Then she had an architect design French windows for the back of the house to provide an open view of the garden from her sitting room, and an upper balcony backed by a trellis woven with Chinese jasmine, native wisteria (the kind that’s not so rampant), grape vines, and passion fruit.

More changes are under way right now, the result of a visit from Prince Charles’ retired head gardener, David Howard, who came to Charleston recently to lecture to the Charleston Horticultural Society and spent a few hours with Marty critiquing her garden. By the time he left, he had rearranged garden furniture and ordered the relocation of various shrubs. At first, Marty’s reaction was “Are you crazy?!” But soon enough she realized he was right. “I had stopped seeing the garden. I needed a refreshing eye, especially one as good as his, blessed with talents of proportion, scale, balance, and good taste.”

And while some things in the garden have changed, one thing remains constant. Every March through June, there’s an explosion of blooms and scents. As Emily would say, “Sustenance for body and soul.”

The garden at 58 Church Street in Charleston, South Carolina, is open to the public most Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons for a donation of $5 per person.