The City Magazine Since 1975

Making Their Getaway

Making Their Getaway
April 2019

Susan and Gene Massamillo’s downtown garden was designed to transport them—and their many guests—to lush landscapes around the globe

It was a sticky-hot day in July 2013 when Susan and Gene Massamillo stepped into a Tradd Street backyard, real estate agent in tow. They followed an old brick path down the middle of a sparse lawn, around a towering sago palm (a century old, it turned out), to a lattice fence overtaken by jasmine. 

Gene pulled open the gate, and there—in South of Broad’s well-manicured midst—grew a wild expanse of trees and vines and weeds. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is it!’” recalls Susan, a Garden Club of America member who was itching to dig into a downtown green space. 

Having divided their time between Charleston and Connecticut for two decades, the Massamillos were searching for a permanent home in the Holy City—and a plot with plenty of room for a garden was at the top of their must-have list. “This one was perfect,” says Susan. “It’s so rare to find something that hasn’t been groomed within an inch of its life.” 

The back part of the property—where a carriage house likely stood in the 19th century—had been left to its own devices since 1989. “Hurricane Hugo took down a giant pecan tree there,” explains Susan. “The homeowners removed it and just put up the fence.” 

The Massamillos purchased the “sunny and happy” Tradd Street house, and Susan set to work sketching her plans for the backyard. The pair then turned to Sheila Wertimer of Wertimer + Cline Landscape Architects to bring those ideas into reality.

“I told Sheila that my idea of a garden is a place that will transport you,” says Susan, now looking out on her oasis from the most-used room in the house: the back porch. She and Gene specifically wanted to invoke memories of their favorite destinations—France, England, and Italy—and the many gardens they’ve toured there.

“The Massamillos liked the idea of having three contrasting rooms within the back garden, which made perfect sense for such a long, narrow space,” notes Sheila. “We decided that the plan of each room would have a similar formal simplicity, but that the plantings in each would contrast and vary—so there would be plenty of interest but no chaos.”

A bluestone patio leads down to a French-style parterre centered around a fountain that Susan loves for its quiet splashing (not to mention the singing frogs it attracts in the summer). ‘Winter Gem’ boxwoods outline beds that she fills each season with all-white annuals. Last year, she let gaura burst above impatiens and artemisia, inspired by British landscape designer Russell Page, “who liked to have wild gardens contained like unruly children within clipped hedges,” Susan explains.

The pale flora glow in the dark, enhancing the Massamillos’ view during evenings on the porch. The parterre also cleanses the visual palate, notes Susan, before the room that comes next, its beds erupting with blooms on either side of a lush lawn. “I’ve always wanted a perennial garden that’s viewed sideways, so you don’t notice the empty spots,” she says. Wertimer delivered, creating a backdrop of sasanqua camellias, then layering in pink Knock Out roses, blue plumbago, and soft-yellow lantana.

Impactful yet low-maintenance, the results would have been perfect for a less hands-on homeowner. “But I like going out to see what’s new each day,” says Susan. “I realized that not much was changing.” She returned from a 2017 trip to England—where she and Gene visited the Charleston Farmhouse and Sissinghurst Castle gardens, among others—inspired to diversify.

“I started tucking in annuals in drifts, going for an overgrown look, as if things just reseeded,” she explains. Blush-colored cleome reach up toward the purple ‘Amistad’ salvia Susan brought from Connecticut (it bloomed straight through last winter, feeding a crew of hummingbirds who never bothered to fly south). Hot-pink pentas pop against chartreuse coleus, and delicate sweet alyssum is sprinkled among round-faced zinnias.

“I enjoy playing with color, contrast, and composition,” notes Susan, who was a women’s clothing designer for Ralph Lauren in the ’80s before turning to a career in interior design.

Her English-garden-style display never fails to wow visitors, including those who strolled through last month during the Garden Club of Charleston’s House & Garden Tour. The Massamillos will welcome company again on June 1—this time for their encore performance on the Behind the Garden Gate tour, a collaboration among Spoleto Festival USA, the Charleston Horticultural Society, and The Garden Conservancy.

On that late-spring Saturday, guests will surely be craving a dip in the pool that stretches through the final room—or at least a rest under the matching white umbrellas. This space is an ode to the Mediterranean. Eight Italian cypresses line the back wall, offering a dramatic backdrop to the garden’s focal point: an urn resting atop a carriage block found amidst the weeds that once devoured this area. The container overflows with foliage in many hues. “I usually do a spiky cordyline at the center—it’s sculptural, and you can see it from far away,” says Susan. “Then I add plants that echo colors from the perennial garden, like chartreuse potato vine, purple secretia, and silvery artemisia.”

Aside from the vibrant focal point, this space is devoted to cooling greens. Relaxing in lounge chairs tucked into a jungle of papyrus, the Massamillos (whose grown sons, Andrew and Christian, are frequent visitors) gaze across the pool at a textured array of Chinese fan palms, ligularia, that historic sago palm—transplanted from the center of the yard—and impossibly tall banana trees.

As far as Gene’s concerned, banana trees are the ultimate tropical plant; in fact, it was his idea to include them in the design, and they did him proud by providing an unexpected benefit. “The first summer here, we realized that by July, the pool is so warm, no one’s going in,” he recalls. “But when their leaves fill out, the banana trees block enough sun to cool the water by about five degrees!”

The heat and humidity is something these Northern transplants have learned to contend with—and embrace. Armed with experience, plus knowledge gained through blogs, books, and many a Charleston Horticultural Society lecture, Susan took on an experiment last July. Before she and Gene left for five weeks in Italy, she commissioned their Ables Landscapes crew to help her cut the garden’s perennials and annuals back by a third. They repeated the pruning just after Labor Day, hoping it would lead to something of a second summer come fall.

It worked like a charm. When the Massamillos opened their garden for a November party supporting the Nuovo Cinema Italiano Film Festival, and then for guests visiting for the British-born Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, the salvia, plumbago, and zinnias were blooming like mad.

“The beauty of a garden is really in sharing it,” says Susan, who never tires of watching how others experience the space. “For example,” she says, “adults will walk around the parterre. Little kids will run straight to the center, pick up a shell from the pathway, and throw it into the pond!”

Of course, spending quiet hours on the porch—watching the butterflies float from flower to flower, admiring the play of light on the banana leaves, and chatting future travel plans—is its own kind of sublime for the satisfied Massamillos.