What is a garden but a piece of dirt?
Sue and James Ban have pulled such beauty from the soggy dirt of St. Helena Island that their garden of more than an acre will be part of the Beaufort Garden Club's 21st annual Garden-a-Day event this week.
A tall fence keeps the deer out of what used to be a jungle. A red and gold "angel house" from their native Cambodia keeps the good spirits inside their treasured piece of earth near the Atlantic Ocean.
Sue Ban bows and calls me "sir" as we walk among the coreopsis taller than she is. We see the many kinds of sunflowers, cosmos, pear trees and knockout roses she insists are so easy they grow with no help from aging human hands.
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James Ban has engineered a drainage system with little locks. He dug a pond for his wife, to soak in the rain water. He has built her trellises, a covered swing and a koi pond at her fragrance garden by the front door. She pulls the bloom of a champa flower, its fragrance more subtle than the gardenia next to it.
She has a pot filled with lotus over here and a "shady garden" with a statue from Cambodia over there.
She has a medley of organic vegetables and a rowboat filled with herb plants. There's galanka, turmeric, lemon grass, bitter melons, cucumbers, three kinds of basil, tiny black tomatoes sweeter than sugar cane, kale, tabasco peppers and soy beans.
Each plant has a story. They each are helpful to body and soul in a number of ways.
And they each pull Sue Ban closer to the roots of a most unusual life.
James and Sue Ban moved to St. Helena to build their retirement home five years ago because she loves to shrimp and crab.
He retired from Kimberly-Clark -- makers of Kleenex, Huggies and Scott towels -- at Beech Island, near Aiken.
He learned engineering at Cambodia's version of West Point and was an officer visiting Fort Gordon, Ga., when the Communist Party led by Pol Pot took over his country.
Sue and their two boys were in Paris at the time and could not go home.
Suddenly, people of means and influence were refugees.
Their siblings who escaped are today scattered around the world.
But Sue lost her parents and a brother in the torturous genocide that left their nation in ruins.
Sue remembers loving plants as a child. And when she got to America, she had time to teach herself how to make them grow.
"I read books and talked to people and copied from a lot of people," she said. "I got lots of ideas from everybody. I learned a lot in France."
As a young woman, she was photographed with the king of Cambodia and architect I.M. Pei.
This week, she will be photographed in a St. Helena Island garden that brings her life full circle.
'I forget everything'
James Ban is a shrimper.
He docks his 32-foot trawler up the street from his home at Gay Fish Co. He says it is a hobby that sometimes produces money.
Sue's hobby produces something else entirely.
Her garden is featured by Augustus Jenkins "Jenks" Farmer in his book, "Deep-Rooted Wisdom." He will be at the Ban home on Thursday when their garden will be featured in the Garden-A-Day tour.
"I love the fluidity and contrasts of Sue and (James') garden: flowers and food, play and work, companionship and solace, excitement and worship," Farmer writes. "They mix old and new, and they consider how things grow and how they can best be used."
For Sue, the garden is even deeper.
"It is peaceful," she said. "My garden is my therapy. It brings me a lot of joy so I don't have to think too much about the past.
"When I go in the garden, I forget everything."
When not a day goes by that she doesn't think about her parents, a garden is much more than a piece of dirt.
- Beaufort club's Garden-A-Day keeps summertime blues away, May 25, 2015