If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that outdoor spaces are a saving grace. Public gardens are an especially wonderful escape, not only for visitors but landscaping and horticultural professionals as well. Follow our series on the top public gardens in the South!
South Carolina Botanical Garden at Clemson University
When Dr. Patrick McMillan began working at South Carolina Botanical Garden in 2010, he was faced with a big task: creating a world-class attraction with just four groundsmen and a shoestring budget.
Since then, South Carolina Botanical Garden has gone from 200,000 visitors a year to 750,000—at least before COVID 19. The garden has grown from 6,000 mostly woody plants to some 12,000 diverse species. And the property is now home to one of the densest bird populations in the world, with more than 200 species on the 295-acre property.
A Natural Heritage Garden Leads the Country
At the centerpiece of it all is the Natural Heritage Garden, the brainchild of McMillan. An ecologist by trade, McMillan converted more than 60 acres the property, which were mostly grass, into living habitats representing the biodiversity of South Carolina.
Along a half-mile walk, visitors, students, horticulturalists and landscape professionals can experience South Carolina’s mountain habitats down to the maritime forests and coastal wetlands.
“Most gardens feature a collection of plants, but we’ve created a collection of habitats,” says McMillan. “We got rid of all these invasive exotics and started building micro-climates, duplicating what we see in the wild, from the hydrology to the soil to the geology. It’s really amazing—no other garden in North America has anything like it.”
Clemson University is located in the state’s Piedmont region, and McMillan says the soil was already in prime condition for mountain habitats. Other areas were more challenging. For the coastal areas, for instance, his team completely re-engineered the landscape. They brought in loads of sand, manipulated the soil and lined beds to hold water.
“By creating new habitats, we’ve seen such an increase of life,” McMillan explains. “We’ve generated insects and seeds and small mammals and therefore attracted a lot more birds as well as a lot more pollinators. We’ve seen 4,000 monarchs in one bed at one time. It’s stunning.”
Breaking the Mold
McMillan says the project is a testament to creating gardens for life and not just for beauty.
“Instead of traditional gardens where there is separation, we have completely filled spaces so that there is overlap and interaction,” he says. “We are redefining beauty to be the intersection of life rather than the division of life. We are breaking the stereotype of a 1950s style of landscaping to creating a healthy habitat for animals and plants.”
McMillan, who teaches forest biology and plant taxonomy at Clemson, says the gardens are an important lesson for landscape architects as well as homeowners to reconsider what is beautiful.
“Landscaping is more than design and flow,” he says. “It’s about plants and the relationships with plants to the environment. Our gardens aren’t what people expect, but people end up being blown away. We are operating on the fringe, and it’s really neat to have these new ideas start right here in South Carolina.”
Top Garden Attractions
South Carolina Botanical Garden is also home to the Bob Campbell Geology Museum, Hanover House and Hunt Family Cabin. Garden attractions include the McBride Aquatic Garden, Nature-based Sculpture Collection, Children’s Garden, Camellia Garden, Xeriscape Garden, Hosta Garden, Chinese and Vietnamese Gardens, and a Desert South Garden.
They even have a sister garden in Hamburg, Germany. Loki Schmidt Botanischer (The Hamburg Botanical Garden) has created a South Carolina Heritage Garden, complete with a cypress swamp, right on the Elbe River.
South Carolina Botanical Garden is free to the public. Although the visitor center and museums have been closed due to the pandemic, the trails remain open.
Top 10 Gardens in the South
Don’t miss the other gardens on our list including Bellingrath in Alabama, Bok Tower Gardens in Florida, Crystal Bridges in Arkansas, Cheekwood in Tennessee, Reynolda Gardens in North Carolina, Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Texas and Jungle Gardens in Louisiana. Stay tuned to see who’s next!