“I used to have an old pick-up truck that I’d move to a different spot every morning,” says Joan McDonald of a routine she took up at her former downtown residence. “Gardening space was limited, so I arranged a makeshift nursery in the bed of the truck and would relocate it according to where the sun was.” Today, McDonald’s horticultural efforts have landed on considerably firmer ground; specifically, the yard around the World War II-era Wagener Terrace bungalow she shares with her husband, Chad. A refreshing mix of beauty and utility, the garden features cut flowers just steps away from a patch of veggies filled with kale, cabbage, and herbs. Above the front door, ivy weaves a tangled web of vines, while outdoor living spaces in the back extend almost seamlessly from the house. “This garden is all about functional beauty,” Joan explains, with an emphasis on “function.” With a background in fine arts, she established herself early on as a serial entrepreneur with restless energy for new projects. In the span of a decade, Joan launched a high-end pet boutique, served as a consultant for Bath & Body Works, and dabbled in product design. So it was no surprise when, after discovering the smallish fixer-upper above Hampton Park in the late 1990s, she quickly hatched an ambitious plan to transform the house. Through a reference from a friend, she called on a local architect to consult with her on design. Chad arrived, and both were quickly smitten. The two married 10 months later and settled into the house they worked together to renovate. Following this, Joan embarked on what she describes laughingly as “an experimental phase in landscape design.” She explains, “For every plant in my garden today, there were at least five that came before that gave their lives to help me learn.” This phase was capped by a misguided attempt to encourage additional plant growth by painting giant red polka dots on the back fence. The theory, such as it was, held that bright colors would help ignite the blooming process in nearby tomato plants. Chad was less than impressed. “I came home and there they were,” he says. “She didn’t even warn me.” Hence, a new rule was instated: Joan could continue to do (or paint) whatever she wanted in the backyard, but the front belonged to Chad. In 2003, five years after buying the Wagener Terrace house, Joan traded in her backyard experiments for more formal horticultural training, joining the volunteer program at the City of Charleston Greenhouse. There, she worked with buds, bulbs, and flowers, learning to grow anything and everything that came through the small greenhouse. A permanent staff member now, Joan, with fellow green thumb Chad, has since brought a charming permanence to her own landscape. “It’s always evolving, but we try to be very efficient in our garden, in terms of available space and practical value of what we’re growing,” says Chad. “It doesn’t come in the yard if it doesn’t serve a purpose.” “Plus, we wanted to play to the property’s strengths, rather than discard and reinvent everything,” Joan explains. To that end, existing hard surfaces are interspersed with grasses and ferns, creating a layered effect that cascades color. In the back, found objects like old floor lamps or discarded tiles become easy design elements, along with the latter half of an old sign from the nearly forgotten fast food chain Hot ’n Now, currently hanging along the back fence and planted with creeping fig. “Form follows function around here,” Chad offers. “It was important to us that we create a garden we can use year-round, and that’s how it’s turned out. We entertain here and just spend time together.”
Planting: • Choose an area that has plenty of sun and does not receive heavy foot traffic. • Make sure soil is well-drained and amended (Joan uses Possum’s Flower Bed Conditioner). • Water soil before sowing seeds. • Lightly mist soil with water after sowing and ensure soil remains moist for germination. Maintaining: • Stake flowers if they begin to bend. • Divide perennials every few years to encourage vigorous blooms. • Many flowers are self-sowing, but don’t forget to harvest seed for next year. • Store seeds in a cool, dry area; label with the name and date of collection. • Prevent powdery mildew by thinning some flowers out to allow better air flow. • Stagger your plantings so you have fresh flowers all season long. • Prune regularly to prevent insect infestation and encourage new growth.
What are some of the main players in the Wagener Terrace space? Joan and Chad list their garden’s standouts Variegated lemon: This fragrant perennial is known for adding a splash of color year-round, producing pink fruit with green-and-yellow striped skin. Calamondin: The compact citrus tree offers miniature, gem-like fruits with glossy green leaves. Lavender: Joan reports that lavender has become “indispensable” in her garden for its cool, silver foliage and elegant purple spires that offer a visual break from the traditional hot palettes of summer. Eucalyptus: The hardy tree adds height and creates a layered effect without blocking the sunlight. Its green foliage offers a cooling contrast to warmer shades found in flower beds below. Carolina Sapphire: These durable trees remain green throughout the year and help anchor outdoor spaces. In addition to her full-size version, Joan keeps a cutting in a pot and brings it indoors each year to use as her Christmas tree. Grapevine: The elegant vine offers good shade and also works well in wreaths, ornaments, and picture frames. Creeping Fig: A fast and easy grower, this is an ideal choice for covering hardscapes and softening edges. Its flexibility makes it a favorite for creating fresh looks (and concealing less successful growth). Vegetables: Here are a few of the McDonalds’ favorite edibles and the colors they bring to the landscape: Carrots–mixed rainbow Potatoes–mixed rainbow Broccoli–purple and green Cauliflower–purple and white Yard-long asparagus beans–purple, red, mosaic, and green Kale–purple Cabbage–purple Swiss chard–mixed rainbow