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A Charleston couple cultivates an earthly paradise reflective of their affinity for diverse flora
Spending time in Roxanne and Robert Werowinski’s garden feels more like a sojourn in the Balinese rainforest, or perhaps a detour down an overgrown road in Brazil, than a walk in a Charleston garden.
There are hints to the casual passerby that something interesting is going on in this space. A leafy, textured foundation of plantings full of color and varied heights leads the eye to a brick path along the side yard. Following it reveals a living arbor of outstretched flowering pink banana leaves overhead, while beneath this verdant canopy an exotic understory of tropical ginger lilies perfumes the air. Yellow-flowered shrimp plants preside above a ground-cover combination of chartreuse sweet potato vine and wandering Jew. This unique landscape of plantings alludes to the diverse horticultural interests of the couple who gardens here.
The Werowinskis are the very definition of passion in overdrive. On first introduction, one might characterize them as a quiet couple—not the types to draw attention to themselves. Ironically, their showy garden does just that. Mention any one of the thousands of favorite plants and conversation takes on the tempo of a Nor’easter. Walk two feet in any direction
through this eclectic menagerie of flora and with each turn, something strikingly wonderful will certainly be discussed.
When asked about the garden’s design, Roxanne grabs a book from their personal library. “I want the garden to have this kind of feel,” she explains, gazing down at a beautifully orchestrated tropical garden in Mallorca, one of many images from which she draws inspiration.
Both Robert and Roxanne have had varied gardening interests over the years. “I started out vegetable gardening. It always intrigued me how people in previous centuries had to grow their own food to simply survive,” says Roxanne, adding that relocating to Charleston was a horticultural wake-up call. “All the perennial plants I was used to seeing thrive in North Carolina didn’t really like it here or lasted only a couple of years and then disappeared.” In a climate like Charleston’s, the transition to tropicals was a natural choice: “Tropical plants can take the hot summers and have such vibrant foliage and flowers,” she says.
Robert, on the other hand, was partial to cacti. “I’ve always loved exotic plants, but when I was still a bachelor, I wanted to grow something that wouldn’t dry up and die if I couldn’t tend to it on a regular basis,” he says. What started out as a dozen or so succulents has now grown to a collection of more than 200 species.
His love for these unique plants also grew out of the appreciation for their varied forms—round-barreled, tall and thin, and everything in between. “They’re architecturally beautiful,” Robert muses as he scans the collection that’s grown under a clear roofed structure on the east side of the house. “The structure allows us to keep excess water off the plants at certain times and to erect protective plastic during the winter, insulating the plants on cold nights,” he explains.
As the couple’s interests in gardening continued to grow, so did their travels. Roxanne credits her passion for tropicals with one of their trips to Florida. “The first time I was face-to-face with huge Canary Island palms, something just clicked. I was in awe and wanted them in my own garden,” she says. Their collection of tropicals growing alongside traditional Lowcountry plants gives the garden its unique flair. “Our travels over the years have given both of us the opportunity to bring back many unique species that add beauty and interest to the garden,” comments Roxanne. Recalling an excursion to the far East, she says,“We walked through what must have once been a magnificent greenhouse. Way in the back, shoved together with a variety of other plants was this,” she says, indicating a wildly patterned begonia.
Growing these non-hardy plants requires a new set of cultivating techniques and the mindset to go with it. During late spring, the Werowinskis pull the tropicals from the makeshift winter greenhouse structure and place them around the garden, planting them in their pots. “This allows us to pull them up easily in the late fall and winterize them before a heavy frost,” says Roxanne.
Seeing all the healthy plants living in harmony might lead one to believe the Werowinskis have a natural talent. And although they have an obvious knack for growing beautiful plants, the couple has “learned along the way and made lots of mistakes,” says Roxanne. “In the beginning, Robert would lay some brick paths and kill the existing grass in the area, giving me a place to experiment,” she says. But before long, Roxanne was stomping out more and more grass, replacing it with plantings of tropical specimens. With more traveling came more plants. “The van has been packed with plants on the way back from wherever for the last 14 years,” Robert explains. To date, he reports that more than 6,900 bricks have been laid throughout the ever-expanding garden.
While tropicals seem to be their primary focus, native plants also fascinate these consummate gardeners. “I’ve been in love with pitcher plants since I first used them in dried floral arrangements,” says Roxanne. So she and Robert created the bog garden with a simple water garden liner filled with a sand and peat moss mixture and mulched with a healthy layer of living green sphagnum moss. There, these brightly colored hooded plants thrive in consistently wet conditions and under the couple’s care. “People who visit this garden always seem to comment on the pitcher plants,” adds Robert.
Fourteen years of gardening in the same spot has now exhausted all available space. “We have reached the point where we have to edit,” Roxanne explains. Removing plants to open up space for others is a common practice in older gardens, but it’s one that has compelled these gardeners to look beyond their own property lines. They found an abandoned corner close to the house, a perfect spot to store plants that no longer had a space in the garden. Today, it has become a repository for plants adaptable to Southern summer conditions. This area has no irrigation and pure sandy, non-fertile soils. “Since we couldn’t add irrigation to the site, things planted here have to be drought tolerant,” says Robert.
Because of their combined interests and talents, the Werowinskis’ garden is a delightful medley of texture and color provided by unique foliage and flowers. American agaves, cherry-red salvias, and antique roses share the space with the curious species they’ve collected over the years. “Two years ago we had one of the giant sotols (a whorled, strap-like leaved plant from the Southwest and Mexico) send up its 15-foot bloom stalk,” reports Robert. “All the neighbors were fascinated by it.”
Of all the things Roxanne might dream of, more land to expand the garden tops the list. “Instead of one of this and one of that, I’d have huge masses flowing into each other. We’d have groupings of bananas and other tropical trees dotting the landscape. I would have an enormous collection of bromeliads and experiment even more with seed-grown palms,” she says.
Robert is silent at the thought of Roxanne’s wish. One surmises he starts to do the math and realizes the brick count would dramatically increase should her wishes come true.