Here's the real deal. It's the 27th annual All Saints Episcopal Church Garden Tour, and I've not missed a one -- though I make my visits before the gardens are fixed up to look perfect for company. Imagination comes into play here. It's then that I think of the selection committee from All Saints and this year's chairwoman, Karen Reuter, who had to bypass an unusually cold winter that played tricks with our semitropical plants. Are they dead? Or alive? Almost all are coming back.
Visitors to the tour gardens will likely not notice a difference in plant size. There is so much that is flowering now: trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, new varieties of old favorites.
Repeat visitors to the tour will be happy to know they can easily visit all eight gardens, as Reuter has artfully placed them within a short driving distance. If you are coming from off Hilton Head Island, begin with Eleanor Fall and Ken Shelton's garden in Moss Creek, where you're greeted with a "welcome bed" and five varieties of daisies and a Japanese Cherry. There's a side riverbed with 4,000 pounds of stones; moss-covered rocks; and an herb garden with every herb I can think of, including hard-to-find lemongrass. The backyard looks out on a saltwater lagoon and has a series of vignettes with uncommon plants in and around antique implements from the Sheltons' farm in Virginia. I was happy to see a rare Serissa plant, a fragrant rice-paper tree, and, in the vegetable patch, an artichoke.
After this, it's over the bridge and into what may be the most romantic garden on Hilton Head. The gardeners here are Renee and Mark Woodruff. The large backyard has the view to get you in the mood. The path to the courting garden is filled with new plant varieties as well as old favorites. There are Passion Flower vines in bloom, a Bird of Paradise, and, as you proceed down the walk, you'll take in the fragrance of a row of tree roses. You'll pass through the gate and sit on the bench to view the circular garden, with its statuary, ferns, bamboo, coral bells, and flowering vines and climbing pines, the air scented with roses.
We head for Wilborn Road and Hilton Head Island High School next, where there is a series of small gardens created and maintained by 20 people. The force here is George Westerfield, who received a message from students a decade ago. It looks terrible outside, they said, like a penitentiary. Westerfield started by acquiring the throw-away plants at Hilton Head plantations and commercial garden entrances, and began to plant. Soon, there were students, teachers and island residents helping. Becky Guin looks after a rose garden and the Avid Gardener garden club members help; Tom Kurtz has been indispensable. Today, the building has small gardens around it that are planted and cared for by resident master gardeners. There is even a small native plant garden with plants provided by grower Daniel Payne.
Next, we are in the back gate of Hilton Head Plantation, headed for the garden of Mary Ellen and Bill Harkins. Here, it's all about bones. For those who've just stumbled into the garden world, bones are the structure of the garden; the plants are the fill-in. First, you see a grown-up Monkey Tree; then the tangerine colors of crossvine and my favorite hanging basket of Old Man's Beard. Mary Ellen's garden is a laboratory. She's planted dozens of new flowering plants to go alongside the perennials that suffered from the freeze. She maintains that the plant damage in January was caused more by wind then by temperature. The Bottlebrushes she thought dead have come back; only two variegated flax lilies were lost. Asiatic jasmine has recovered. You'll see the unusual here: Longhorn fern, bat plant -- that's a cuphea -- and new this year, a salvia, Wendy's Wish. This garden is filled with new ideas -- new ways to put plants and hardscape together.
Put your sunglasses on because now you're heading to the front yard of Joy Macdonald, where there's big time color. Think of every flowering plant you know that blooms in spring, and they are here and looking gorgeous in their bed built around a full grown Japanese Maple. Every plant looks outsized, and I asked what they are fed. Joy said, "I place new plants in a pot with Osmocote to give them a head start. When they've grown larger, they go in the ground." In the backyard, there is an orchard of oranges, Mandarin, blood and Florida Valencia. In 2012, Joy picked 350 oranges from one tree. On the way out, ask to see Joy's 30-foot hemlock.
One could call Annemarie Kinsky's garden "A Living Laboratory." It has the largest variety of plants that I've seen in a local private garden. They live to grow large, they give up babies, they flower early and often. There were 55 Amaryllis in bloom when I visited. How does she keep them from sinking into the ground? Every other year, she lifts them, feeds and adds compost. Roses abound. I fell in love with a purple one. New to me was an eye-catching False Hosta and a collection of South African plants that she says do well here. An outsize shrimp plant, African iris, firespike, Stokesia, rosa rugosa, bear's breeches, Columbine and coral bells take up a few feet of garden, leaving room for 100 or so more. Annemarie is an orchid expert. She's not sure how many she has. Some are flowering. So many perfect plants. So are there deer?, I ask. Yes, and Annemarie uses a deterrent, Natura. It stinks, she says, but it works.
The two gardens in Port Royal Plantation could not be more different from one another. Corinne and Michael Roe have lived here a short time and have created a garden filled with plants that are indigenous to our area. There is a large perennial bed that flowers from spring to fall. There are blood orange and fig trees and a Meyer lemon. There's a yellow Lady Banks' Rose flowering on a trellis. In the backyard, Michael has designed and made a series of vegetable, flower and herb gardens. It's a stunning French look, not often seen here. There are fruit trees and grape vines and Vidalia onions. Overlooking these bountiful, edible plants are three Leyland cypress trees.
One to go. Joan and Howard Ackerman live on Port Royal Sound, a great background for any plant. There are good-looking shrubs here of Bottlebrush, camellia, Ligustrum and Viburnum. Joan fights scale on her gorgeous camellias with insecticide soap and horticultural oil. She feeds them twice a year with Holly-tone. There's a kitchen garden in pots. In the swimming pool garden, bed flowers are mostly purple and yellow, Joan's favorite colors. They're favorites of butterflies, too. What I carried away from this flower-filled garden were memories of iris. Two kinds, African and Elephant, are favorites of mine, but they don't like my yard.
When you go to the All Saints Episcopal Church Garden Tour, take a camera and a notebook with you. Almost all of the tour plants are from local garden centers. And if they don't have it, they'll do their best to find it for you.
Sixty-year master gardener and environmentalist Betsy Jukofsky has spent three decades on Hilton Head Island learning the peculiarities of Coastal Lowcountry gardening.