Home & Garden

Plein Air Palette: Step Inside a Charleston Creative’s Backyard Studio

Native plants color the canvas for a Lowcountry artist and landscape architect

A woman swings on a swing in her garden


Gret Mackintosh catches air outside her backyard studio.

In the deep Lowcountry shade of a pair of gnarled live oaks, artist Gret Mackintosh’s three-year-old son, Mack, draws fleeting chalk masterpieces on the bluestone hard-scape abutting the screened porch and the garden beyond. Fox, the family dalmatian, picks his way along familiar paths snaking through lush beds planted with heirloom camellias, azaleas, and gardenias as well as hardy cast-iron and tractor seat plants. Native fern varieties such as Southern Wood and Cinnamon also thrive in this suburban Charleston garden’s dappled sunlight.

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In a back corner, Mackintosh’s painting studio anchors the small but abundantly green space behind her home. Built by her ex-husband and his team at Carolina Sawyers using rough-cut South Carolina pine, the workspace is outfitted with wide-plank white oak floors, reclaimed windows, and salvaged, solid-brass marine lights. But it’s the surrounding splendor—the result of years of sweat equity—that’s a true testament to Mackintosh’s creativity, especially considering just how far the place has come.

“When I bought the house in 2007, there was nothing back here but these old live oaks,” she says of the once-desolate dirt patch. “It was a blank canvas. Every single thing has been planted by me.” The landscape architect turned full-time artist is as skilled with soil, shrubs, flowers, and ferns as she is with acrylics and brushes. “I double majored in art and design and landscape architecture at the NC State College of Design, and in school, I always thought of the two things separately,” she says, “but I have been using those skills together more and more over the years.”

A staghorn fern.

Her most celebrated paintings—brilliantly colored aerial maps of the South Carolina coastline and beyond, which nabbed her the Coastal Community Foundation’s Griffith-Reyburn Lowcountry Artist of the Year award in 2022—demonstrate an abiding connection to nature and a landscape architect’s eye for detail. Similarly, the garden’s artfully constrained wildness reflects Mackintosh’s vast knowledge of regional plants as well as an artist’s appreciation for experimentation and play. “I’ve been moving plants around for years,” she says. “I feel like this yard is an example of two decades of scrappy resourcefulness, figuring out what worked, eliminating what didn’t, and trying to propagate what did.”

As a young homeowner and fledgling landscape architect with little to no budget, Mackintosh often scavenged job sites (with permission, of course) to score some of her favorite specimens. Those long-ago finds such as wild ginger, whose heart-shaped leaves shelter burgundy blooms each spring, as well as bunches of delicate trilliums, add interest, texture, and a dash of whimsy to the garden’s shadiest spots. And rather than splurging on steel or stone edging, Mackintosh cleverly lined flower beds with downed oak branches blanketed in tiny resurrection ferns that unfurl anew after each rain. By the garden gate, a sizable loquat tree, which started out as a seedling she propagated from a tree near her old office building, greets visitors, and come summer, its branches drip with the sweet stone fruit.

Pink hellebores.

She foraged still more plants, especially Southern fern varieties, on trail rides on nearby Johns Island, where she stabled her Kentucky-born Thoroughbred, Arbitrator. “I would tie grocery bags to my saddle,” she says of her DIY method for carting her woodland treasures home. Friends and family gave her other potted starts, like the prehistoric-looking staghorn ferns that hang inside her studio and on the walls of the screened porch, the glossy camellias, and the native Eastern red-buds that bloom an electrifying pink each spring.

Native heartleaf ginger.

“This yard is full of native plants as well as other things that work in a shady, acidic Lowcountry garden,” she says. “Things that support pollinators and other wildlife—and require minimal maintenance.” Native evergreens such as anise and yaupon holly also make excellent candidates for year-round privacy screening, Mackintosh says. Birds love the garden too, and the robins, wrens, woodpeckers, owls, and other feathered friends that frequently pass through her small plot prompted Mackintosh’s watercolors collection Backyard Birds.

Mackintosh and her painting of the Charleston peninsula titled Southern Charm.

But she can’t deny the appeal of the Southern ornamental—on paper or canvas, or in the garden. Alongside Little Gem magnolia blossoms, fragrant blooms such as gardenias, which she transplanted from her late aunt’s garden, and large tea olive shrubs perfume the air. And as the weather warms, hydrangeas and azaleas punctuate the blanket of green. They also highlight the garden’s deeply personal nature. “My family always marks births and deaths by planting whatever is blooming at the time,” she says. “They sent some beautiful Encore azaleas years ago in honor of my dog, Louie, when he died in the spring. Then to mark the birth of Mack, I added a beautiful Limelight hydrangea that blooms around his birthday each year.”