Shaking Up the Center of Classic Charleston with a Wild Heart

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Colonial Lake Just Before Dawn on a Summer Day. Kellen Goodell photo.

Plantsman and author, Jenks Farmer, in his first Guest Rant, tells a story of a dream come true.

How do I describe that sensation of not feeling the effects of the atmosphere? When for a moment, there’s skin and air and self and the world seem as one? When I’m in it, that equilibrium, there’s a moment before awareness; that’s the best. Those moments come on Maine mornings, Seattle summer afternoons and twilight in the fall, anywhere. Down in low lying, normally humid Charleston I feel one dawn in May. Walking through this park I’m in it for a few seconds. Then the thought registers, and way up overhead, a scratchy, rustling noise of palmettos leaves reminds me. I feel it move a curl of hair against my ear. I smell it, that breeze brings down a rosy fragrance mixed with a brown smell of funky marsh mud and sea grass.

Charleston Parks Conservancy photo.

This downtown park couldn’t be anywhere else. It’s always been a singular, odd thing. Even South Carolina’s famed novelist, Pat Conroy wrote, “I grow calm when I see the ranks of palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of Colonial Lake.”

If you read what he didn’t say, or if you ever passed here anytime from 1900 to 2016, you know the palmettos because there really wasn’t much else to see. That quote is a romantic description of a place that was sparse grass, sidewalks, a murky, saltwater lake, and rows of naked palmettos. In my lifetime anyway, that was it. Oh, wait, there was an ancient lobbed off chaste tree and some weirdly pruned balls of pink oleander. To be fair, the people who walked their dogs probably liked it. Fishermen who don’t have boats love saltwater fishing right downtown. And, each Thanksgiving, local firemen floated a lighted Christmas tree onto the lake and then on New Year’s Eve, someone would drive their car right into the muck.

Library of Congress photo.

Since the 70’s, I’ve spent a good bit of time in Charleston visiting family and then later working as a horticulturist. I’ve sought rare lilies in cemeteries, visited great gardens and even collected plants on condemned housing projects. I’ve known more than a few adventurous plant people. Since the 70’s no one ever said, “Let’s check out Colonial Lake.”  Not once. Ever.

Until now. Every single trip, in any season, no matter how many other things are on my agenda, I plan time to walk the park around Colonial Lake. This naturalistic, ever-changing garden full of people and plant friends is now the horticultural highlight of Charleston, SC.

Kellen Goodell photo.

Jim Martin, a friend and mentor, brought on this change. That’s just Jim’s way. He has done the same in three South Carolina cities: Columbia, Georgetown and Charleston. Jim turned this place of compacted soils and suffering palmetto trees from byway into an iconic planting that tells a story of the deep South’s coastal plains plants and horticultural history and makes a statement about the state of our native plant movement.

For planting design, Jim took a cue, a small cue from New York’s Highline, Chicago’s Millennium Park and similar public plantings. There was no duplication of those gardens. Those famed naturalistic plantings draw on meadows, which makes sense for where they are. The cue he took was to tell a story of natural habitats to people who rarely see them, right in the middle of when they walk, bike, stroll and walk their pets.

Kellen Goodell photo.

We don’t really have meadows in the deep south. The equivalent here is pine savannah or a marsh. Look across a pine savannah; under a soaring canopy of long needled pines there is a sea of chest-high grasses and thick-leaved perennials. It looks like a sweeping monotony. But smaller grasses and sedges grow underneath. And an incredibly diverse herbaceous and annual layer intermixes too. There are few woody plants, as lightning-induced fire suppresses them and woodies are more prone to fire damage. But occasional low spots are too wet to burn, which protects a few shrubs. These spots, called pocosins, protect emerald green wax myrtle, inkberry holly and thorny swamp rose. Thin Carolina jessamine vines climb the shrubs and Tarzan-thick supple jack lianas hang from trees.

Endless summer heat, soils enriched from burns and decay and sun make this a productive habitat.

Today around Colonial Lake broomstraw and panic grass, bull rush, white top sedge and even some European sedges mimic that unifying layer of blades. Perennials jump, lean, overflow and remind that this climate produces massive growth rates. It’s a climate of maximum growth where plants are really wild and messy in ways that scare some people.

Kevin Goodell photo.

Jim knows how to grab attention with just the right mix of the beauty he sees in the wild and the kind of beauty most people expect. His spectacular pairing of plants from similar climates and similar ecosystems from all over the world lets plants do what they do in our climate and also lets most visitors fall in love with the verdant style.

When Monty Don, England’s premier horticulturist, ecologist and TV-gardener, did a PBS series on American gardens, during the opening scene he walked through the park under those old once naked palmettos. At his head level, as they would be in the wild, the shredded-wheat textured skin of the palmettos looked bare. Today this is one of Charleston’s top garden spots – the place to pose for prom pictures, to propose to someone, or if you’re a famous TV garden show host, to open your show. Today climbing up, cascading down and spritzing the whole park with that rose-milk fragrance — the one that reminded me at dawn that I’m part of this place.

Of the new planting style Jim says:

“The inspiration was the marsh and the savannah. We wanted to push the envelope. To tell an ecological story. So many visitors come to Charleston but they can’t get out into the swamp or marsh to see the native crinum, hibiscus or coral bean flowering. We want to connect to that for them. We want to challenge them too. But this IS a city park. We have a gardening level to meet. There was a history here to be acknowledged, too. We included some elements of what’s referred to here as ‘traditional Charleston’ gardens. And we found plants from similar habitats that spiced it all up a bit.”

Kellen Goodell photo

It’s a bland name but Broad Street is a landmark here. It’s a tight two lanes downtown that quickly turns residential and today it’s lined with multi-million-dollar collector homes. Then trees reach over it when you get to the park. It’s a street paved in overly romantic novels with layers of allure. Pat Conroy made the street name part of one of his novels. To keep in sync with the homes and allure along Broad, Jim included azaleas and camellias and even a serpentine podocarpus hedge. Structural perennials like Asiatic crinum mix with plumbago and a few natives. “We tried, we really did. It was more than a nod to the area,” says Jim.

The first fall after planting, Hurricane Mathew flooded the entire park. New plants, beds, sidewalks, benches, even the lake itself sat three feet under saltwater. You see, for all the allure of Charleston’s Broad Street, it was once simply marsh with brown creeks running through. Today it’s barely above sea level and if anywhere in town is going to flood, it’s going to be Broad Street at the corner of Colonial Lake Park.

“A sign for Charleston’s Colonial Lake is submerged after it burst it’s banks when Hurricane Matthew hit Charleston, South Carolina, October 8, 2016.” REUTERS/Jonathan Drake.

After that first flood, as soon as the water receded, Jim and his crew ran irrigation constantly, trying to flush out the salt. But all that newly planted Asian stuff, all those nods to traditional gardening shriveled up and died. That caused more than a bit of disappointment in the new park renovation. TV news made it a sensational story. People wrote letters to the editor.  As for the naturalistic planting style, there’s a crowd of traditionalists who long for the clipped and tidy “Charleston style” (ironically, that was defined by a New York garden designer using mostly Asian plants back in the 1940’s and 50s).

But most park visitors and neighbors love the new style, so says Charlestonian John Darby:

“My son lives on the park and we’ve watched it become the place to be. Especially during Covid, it’s a place to get outside safely. Ten years ago, someone going out to walk a dog in the surrounding neighborhoods just walked the dog. Today, they go out of their way to see what’s going on in the park.” Darby has another significant interest in watching the park.  As President of The Beach Company, he’s put millions of dollars and hopes into a mixed-use retail, rental and owners complex almost adjacent to the park, and “that pristine park is definitely a selling point.”

Colonial Lake and other Charleston parks are the latest of Jim’s overhauling of the city’s look and horticultural vision. By his own accord, Jim will credit every success with a team. Jim assembles and motivates like nobody’s business. I’ve spent many years on various teams he put together. To give you one solid example of Jim’s ability to motivate, to release people to be more than they know they can be, consider that I am a relatively quiet guy. Once, Jim convinced me to wear a Kermit the Frog suit to an American Society for Horticultural Science convention, to walk through the trade show, lectures and coffee breaks as if nothing were odd about it. Back in college, I nicknamed him “Juggernaut Jim.”

On the Colonial Lake project, Jim worked with a team that included engineers, landscape architects and fundraisers. This team and project were assembled by the non-profit Charleston Parks Conservancy, a support group for City of Charleston Parks Department. But Jim did more than plan and spec mulch. He did what talented garden designers do.  Jim visualized the visitor’s journey. He imagined my morning walk in May, a sultry August night, a frigid winter day. And he wrote the story to be told via plants. Some visitors may notice stone choices, concrete color or bench styles, but every single one notices the plants. From the start, Jim also understood that neither landscape company nor park crew could provide the knowledge to care for this planting. He planned to hire a full-time professional horticulturist who could manage a team of volunteers.

“Those Asian plants that died in the first flood might have been ok with another year’s root growth. But I wasn’t going to take the chance of replanting. Today, Kellen Goodell and I look to Florida ecology for inspiration.

“Remember? It’s what you and I discussed at the start of this project. Ecologically, the coastal plain is one thing, regardless of state lines. We have a few great native nurseries but North Florida has a real movement, so we look there for inspiration and new plants.“

Forget designers, consultants and landscape architects and even Juggernaut Jim. If a garden thrives over time, it’s because of one specific professional gardener, the dirty knees and nails person who brings success. Colonial Lake looks like it does because of Kellen Goodell, the young horticulturalist Jim brought on early in the project. Kellen knows where there’s a patch of soil that’s hydrophobic. He knows where the bothersome snail vine lays feet deep in the soil and comes back each spring.

About ten years ago, a young University of Florida student came to work with me (in a botanical garden) as an intern. Committed to organic food production, Kellen was quiet, unassuming and seemingly unaware that his commitment, earnestness and easy smile inspired people. Kellen didn’t completely give up on vegetables or Florida, but he fell in love with Charleston gardening. He’s been lead horticulturist of Colonial Lake’s gardens since the renovation started back in 2016.

Kellen Goodell. Melissa Toms photo.

Kellen knows the swooning heat, the humidity that makes mulch stick to your forearms and the mysterious spread of poison ivy bumps. He knows what it is to be immersed in a passion. And Kellen knows heartbreak. He recalls:

“I’m not often despondent, but this was my first huge job, my first commitment to a place.  I started in summer 2016. In fall, the city flooded. I saw it all underwater on TV and I just wanted to cry. When I could go down, there was Jim, with a pep in his step as he strolled through all my great compost and mulch, which was running down the street for blocks. He told me you can’t control it. A garden is a living thing. We’ll make it better. Jim teaches when he doesn’t realize it. We replanted. And we thought that sort of hurricane flood was a one-and-done. It wasn’t typical over the past 30 years. Then it happened again the next fall. And that was our turning point.”

That’s when Kellen really started seeking underused, salt-tolerant plants both native and from similar ecosystems. He says:

“Now, the Broad Street side, which not only floods but gets car exhaust and walk-throughs and so much abuse, has gone from critical to spectacular. He describes it today,

“The elderberry is almost too happy. But under the shade of massive trees, mixed in with banana shrubs and windmill palms, with native red erythrina, it’s magical. And down at the corner sunny spot, panicum, catmint, crinum and later the super tall, super purple giant ironweed colors up in fall and keeps structure through winter.

“On that whirlwind trip you and I did of native nurseries of central Florida, you turned me on to fast-growing frog fruit and sensitive vine but I think the biggest impact from that trip took a while to show — Simpson’s stopper. That shrub gives something every season – flowers in spring, fragrance, fall fruit. And it’s a pollinator plant, salt-tolerant, urban-tolerant. And it recovers like crazy; if a biker falls into it and crushes it, it sprouts right back. Its native range extends up the coast to about a hundred miles south of us. But we’re not trying to be a natives-only garden.”

Kellen tells me about other professional horticulturists who utilize the park as a botanical garden. “They walk it, look, text me, learn new plants and get inspiration from the place — with no ticket fee, no closing time and no pressure.”

It’s a half mile around the lake. It’s a ton of work. But it was never intended for one person. One a humid summer morning, the kind of day when your glasses fog up when you get out the truck, I saw tall, lank, smiling Kellen sitting in the shade surrounded by a crew of dirty, dedicated volunteers. They’ve been gardening all morning with him; now they’re having a little break to celebrate his birthday. Even my Momma sent a pound cake — Kellen is easy to like. He couldn’t keep this garden, this park, without these dedicated neighbors.  One woman has in her lap some very expensive kid skin gloves. Not only do they do the work here, but they advocate for the park and the sometimes-controversial planting style when they socialize.

Kellen Goodell and the Park Angels.

Kellen doesn’t think about their power and pull in that way. He’s telling them about obligate moth pollination on yuccas. He’s nerdy. But sophisticated. He draws you in. And he doesn’t often realize when he’s teaching.

Right now, at this time of Covid, the volunteers cannot connect physically. Kellen tells me:

“This garden is making it now, with just me taking care of it because it has been properly pruned, mulched and weeded. Jim talks about gardens as places of teaching. And we’re adding more labels and interpretation all the time. But here’s part of the learning too: it’s not just tough, adapted plants but its proper care that pays off. All those volunteers working all those hours over the years set this garden up to make it through a crisis. It’s magical right now and it will be when it gets hot, too.”

As I finished this writing, Kellen texted to tell me there was a peaceful gathering in Colonial Lake Park to honor George Floyd and to call for changes to police policy. We have a long way to go to see that kind of transformation. At least in one park, one landscape, one planting, we’ve been able to see that something that seems ingrained and unchangeable can become something totally new. And that text made me so happy to know that Kellen and his easy smiles, his love of plants and people, got to be part of the creation of a place that all sorts of people now treasure and trust.

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The saltwater still moves with the tide, twice daily, but new flood gate systems keep the water level up. To see a jelly fish in Colonial Lake

To see a few of the plants of the park: https://www.charlestonparksconservancy.org/park/colonial-lake

Or follow Jim Martin and Kellen Goodell on Instagram.

Jenks Farmer helped set the vision for South Carolina’s three newest botanical gardens created over the past 25 years. He runs a specialty bulb nursery and has written two books, Deep Rooted Wisdom from Timber Press and Funky Little Flower Farm from his own Plantsman Publications. Jenks was a founding member of the Charleston Parks Conservancy which funds and manages projects like the Colonial Lake renovation.

14 COMMENTS

  1. So, Jenks——any chance you have pictures of you as Kermit? (loved the article, love your slant on things—)

  2. So interesting! Now I REALLY want to visit. I have family in Litchfield and of course I’d take up Kirk Brown’s offer of a tour of Magnolia Plantation while I’m there. But seeing Colonial Lake is a must! Susan

  3. What an enjoyable meaty read for a slow cool misty morning. What stood out for me was that a vital component of Jim’s team to make this garden vision happen was a skilled professional maintenance gardener with the dirty knees and fingernails in the form of Kellen to oversee the life and care of the garden and that looking to the regional ecology of the site for native and adaptive plant selection does not eliminate the need for that skilled maintenance gardener to make an actual garden appear.

    Reading about this garden and the Coralbean alone makes me think I should stop driving by Charleston when heading south and stop in for a visit. But I can feel the heat and humidity rising and have been gone too long. That kind of atmosphere could kill me now. I often marvel at growing up and surviving to young adulthood and the beginning of a career in horticulture in N. Florida without the use of air conditioning.

    • I’m with you man. I grew up in the country and always say I didn’t have a/c nor a shower till I moved into a Clemson dorm. Glad you enjoyed the story.

  4. Beautiful! I’m inspired to pull weeds and mulch my own garden under the hot North Florida sun, and to finally visit Charleston one day soon.

  5. What a beautiful piece of writing this is. I will make Colonial Lake a priority on my next trip to Charleston whenever travel is possible again. I’ve enjoyed hearing you speak on several occasions and much like your writing there is a ease and reflective grace to your observations. I dig it. Also, you grow some mighty fine crinums!

    • Thank you Jennifer. Speaking and telling stories comes so much more naturally to me. I look forward to being able to do that again. Now, I continue to practice writing. J

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