Charleston’s unexpected gardens

It all started one afternoon when I met a young man planting a garden in the most unlikely place. Through the alley, behind the parking lot, and between two buildings — there he was planting hostas and gladiolas bulbs.
After striking up a conversation, he mentioned living downtown and loving to garden. He had found a small bed, and after asking permission, he began to plant. I have enjoyed watching his garden grow. And it has encouraged others. A tiny spot just big enough for three hostas is now planted by an office back door. Both gardens are mulched and weeded. They both make my mood a little lighter.

This reinforces my belief: If you love to garden, you will find a way.

With the promise of breakfast and an adventure, I convinced a friend to be the driver so I would be on the lookout for unexpected gardens in unusual places.

After a delicious raspberry crumble at Mea Cuppa, we were off. It was not long until we spotted hanging string lights, which led to a potato field. A beautiful, irrigated, potato field. Sweet morning glories were growing on the corner of the fence; a row of trees with stone landscaping lined the street — what a surprise.
We were on a roll now. Many Elk City businesses along Tennessee Avenue had black planters filled with tropical plants greeting customers at the front door. Along West Washington Street, there were colorful mobile planters. One of my favorite little garden spots was a square of soil around a sidewalk tree planted with daylilies and a small shrub — nothing fancy, just an opportunity for a gardener to brighten the neighborhood.

The Rebecca Street Urban Farm was our next stop. Greeted by long-time Charleston gardener Thomas Toliver, we met folks who have adopted Charleston as their home and now grow enough produce that they can share with local food pantries. They talked of bringing to West Virginia the methods of gardening they used in other countries. It involves burying the roots deep, and slowly — as the plant grows — mounding the soil around the stalk. It is a new method to me, but it must work; their plants were big, healthy, and loaded with produce.

Here in this North Charleston community garden, we also saw a high tunnel, the prettiest purple kale I have ever seen, and a plot of flowers tended by a local florist. I was also quite taken with a stone border surrounding many of the beds. It was not your traditional smooth river rock; this was an urban garden rock border. Using what they had on hand, the border was busted concrete, a bit of piping, asphalt, and cement blocks. It was perfect.

Continuing our drive through parts of Charleston, we saw a warehouse covered in scarlet trumpet vine and parking lots with wildflowers growing around the edges. We discovered community gardens growing in all parts of Charleston. All were well maintained and packed with soon-to-be harvested produce.

Some may say the West Side is the Best Side, but those are fightin’ words for this born and raised East End gal. Hats off to Zegeer Hardware for the landscaped bed with blooms of red towering over their sign in the parking lot. Yes, gardens can happen anywhere.

Our travels took us on a loop around the city, and as we came across the South Side Bridge, we stopped at one of my favorite city corners. According to the signage, the Midland Garden Club maintains the memorial garden against the city building. The tall magnolia tree is blooming; although the oakleaf hydrangea is not in bloom, the pink and blue hydrangea provide good color. Look closely, and you will see the dry rock bed running through the space, a bench, and gerber daisies.

While stopped at this light, don’t forget to look up and see the cascading pink flowers from garden boxes on the parking garage. These boxes and those on Summers Street are a collaboration project with the City and Kanawha Garden Club. Again, an unexpected garden.

Although it shines most brightly in the spring with a magnificent tulip display, the small garden just one block down is always a joy. Continue straight at this light, and you will pass the downtown post office, with side plantings of lilies and coneflowers. Turn left towards Capital Street, and you are in for a treat.

The Block restaurant has upped their game this year; their outside flowers are fabulous. Following the thriller, filler, spiller formula, the bright colors surround diners and distract from the library construction.
Black Sheep Burrito’s patio is filled with hanging ferns, tropical potted plants, and the hanging boxes on the railings bring the blooms to the perfect height to be enjoyed while dining.

Charleston Bread took advantage of their sunny windows and filled them with herbs. The plants are happy. So happy and so big that the business will share a few herbs with customers. They have also planted a tiny spot outside their front door. Another fun unexpected herb garden is at ReStore. That’s the thing about locals and gardeners — we take pride in our space, and when we have more than enough, we share.

While downtown, don’t forget about the green spaces of the Lee Street Triangle, a project of the Belmont Garden Club and the City, and of course Davis Park. Both provide a green contrast to the city traffic. Thanks to the City of Charleston for being the hidden work force behind many of these gardens.

Local gardeners who can’t resist the call of an empty spot manage most of the gardens I mentioned, but there are a few honorable mentions of larger company’s landscaping. Summit Bank has a clever rock mulch surrounding a few shrubs. The parking lot on Summers Street (the one everyone uses for Sunday brunch) has a well-manicured garden against the street. The Southridge Panera drive-thru is simple but pretty, and all make an effort to enhance their surroundings.

There was one more stop on our tour of unexpected gardens. Following a suggestion from a reader, we drove to Dunbar. As you enter a very busy intersection with several stoplights, you are greeted by not one but three cheerful gardens. We found a safe place to park and took a stroll through these beds. They were well-cared-for and showed recent work of deadheading and mulch. It was planted to bring interest in all the seasons — spring peonies, summer roses, and black-eyed Susans, a huge crepe myrtle, plus a few annuals, and mums and autumn joy sedum for the fall — well done, Dunbar.

We started out looking for an adventure and unexpected gardens. The day was a success. We discovered gardens in all shapes and sizes, and I’m sure we missed a few. Some were planted to feed families; some were planted to feed our souls. I know now more than ever, gardeners are drawn to nurturing, and regardless of how or where they will find a way to garden in the most unexpected ways.