Charleston Home: Shades of Green
Under cover of a handful of oaks, self-taught gardener Tommy Peters creates a cool garden hideaway
"The difference between a yard boy and a gardener is this: a gardener’s job is never really finished.” That’s according to Tommy Peters, yard boy turned bona-fide green thumb, as he strolls the brick and bluestone paths in his shady garden in Molasses Creek. “At some point, you cross this imaginary line and realize that you’ve followed your sketch exactly—everything is planted and pruned back, your soil is just right—and you’ve still got so much more you want to do.”
He (a commercial painting contractor by day) and his wife, Sterling Hannah, bought their gabled two-story home as newlyweds just three years ago. Not only was the fenced plot dotted with a half-dozen ornamental oaks, the former owners had used a landscape designer to fill it out with azaleas and other shrubbery. “There was an excellent backbone for a garden,” says Sterling.
Namely, the tree coverage made their plot that rare, pleasant respite during hot Lowcountry summers. Around here, who sits in a garden in August? Well, if there’s a breeze, Sterling and Tommy are among the very few. Problem was, there were several bare areas where plants struggled in filtered sunlight.
At the time, Tommy’s horticultural resumé consisted of a “postage-stamp-size lawn downtown,” which he filled with a crepe myrtle and a tray of annuals, and later, a hardscape installation of walkways, planters, and waterfalls. Which is why, at least initially, he simply set out to remedy the bald spots with the same. “Then I was penciling in raised beds, a rock garden, and other elements,” he recalls. “After all, it’s just a sketch—but if you like it well enough, then you have to build it.” And build it he did. In went handmade brick-bordered walkways with bluestone fields, planters, water features, and irregular foot paths.
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Once they were built, “the garden looked like a construction site,” laughs Tommy. “Lots of structure and nothing to offset it, to soften it.”
That, he explains, is what drew the influx of greenery. “I decided to fill it in a bit. This was right when Carolina Nurseries was going out of business, so a friend of mine took me over there to pick through a few ideas. We had literally hundreds of plant species to work with, and I was bringing in a new load of plants every weekend. The color palette expanded just like that, and the backyard quickly took on a very natural presence,” says Tommy.
And he, in turn, began looking at the concept in yet another way. “I initially leaned toward a very formal design, but once you have 150 different varieties in the backyard, ‘formal’ is impossible.” Rigid ideas like linear hedges and symmetry were thrown out—“You don’t find that in nature,” he points out—and trial-and-error became the new game plan. He rattles off favorites from the resulting mix of evergreens and flowering plants, grasses and hardy shrubs. “Edgeworthia is one of my favorite trees,” he says of the architecturally interesting “paper bush” that maintains an umbrella shape of leathery leaves in the summer and fall, which are replaced by solid round yellow and white bulbs in the winter and early spring. Also high on his list are ‘Temple Bells’ with their snow-like winter blooms and Acorus grass—a species that can grow in standing water as well as sandy soil.
Farfugium gigantea, with its “leaves like dinner plates,” says Sterling, and its relative, the leopard plant, add drama to the organic mix of greenery, as do specialty trees like the weeping cypress, loblollies, and coral bark Japanese maples he hauled back from Specialty Trees nursery on Edisto Island.
As for all that shade? Tommy discovered plants that worked, like bear’s breaches, hostas, and wild ginger for their rich, variegated floor. “I found that borders like this do very well, along with shady lady—a Floridian cultivar—when you’ve got filtered sunlight. Plus, these are bright and variegated, which I like as a way to lighten dark corners.” Indeed, the “experimental gardener” went from remedying a few bald spots to a rather discriminating (and daily) exercise in what-goes-here-and-why, a gamely balance of visual artistry and hard-earned green smarts.
“When you get close to having something really good, you start to look at it by the square yard instead of by the backyard,” says Tommy. “I keep saying, ‘I’m done. It is finished.’ Then the weekend comes, and I pick up the shovel again. It started off as a simple hardscape installation, and now I’m fluent in Latin and my friends have stopped calling me,” he jokes.
“Besides being a closet architect, I think he’s a frustrated artist,” Sterling adds. “By day, his business is very exacting, and precision is the rule, so this garden became a big creative outlet. The backyard is one big canvas. You hear that artists, they keep painting until the canvas stops talking to them,” she finishes. “I think he’ll keep going until the garden does as well.”
Ellen McGauley is Charleston’s home editor. She scouts digs from Awendaw down to Edisto, reports on market trends, and lives in a single house downtown.