There’s always something you’d like to have more time to pursue. For Robert Christiansen, it was gardening.
Before retiring, Christiansen spent his waking hours as an economist in classrooms at Colby College in Maine and offices of the International Monetary Fund here and abroad.
Since moving to Charleston three years ago, he’s had more time to express his interest in growing things. When his wife, Maria Israelsson, received a Charleston Horticultural Society notice about its docent training course, he decided to take it.
The eight-week annual course ensures there is a group of volunteers trained and ready to lead tours of Charleston gardens when an event is held.
“I guess I am adventurous,” says Christiansen, who had never been on a single garden tour before signing up for the course. The opportunity to study with others as passionate about gardening as he was a plus.
Those who take the horticultural society course are required to be a member or join and give at least 15 hours of volunteer service, says Susan Epstein, Plantasia and tours manager.
Of those trained as docents, 60 percent to 70 percent remain active society volunteers. They also lead tours for Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston.
“They know when they get Charleston Horticultural Society docents, they are getting trained docents conversant in plant material and knowledgeable about Charleston horticultural history,” she says.
Christiansen, who had taken some gardening classes over the years, was pleased with the society’s course.
“This one provided the greatest stock of practical knowledge,” he says. “You sit in a room with these ladies who are extraordinary. The amount of gardening experience among them must have totaled several hundred years.”
Christiansen’s own passion for gardening is underscored by his many orchids. Last year, he had one orchid, a gift from his wife. Now he has a greenhouse full of them. In talking about his passion for growing plants, he referred to his grandfather, Robert Brown, once a gardener at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
To another level
Catherine Latto, a financial planner, is excited about her opportunities to interpret Charleston’s gardens for visitors. She enjoyed studying about the local grasses, vines, trees as plants and more in the course.
“Charleston used to be a best kept secret, but now we are on the world stage. People want to know more than what a plant’s name is. Docents get to share what they learn with others who care.
“I’ve got to bring my game up,” says Latto, a gardener for 22 years. “When I volunteer to be a docent, I can share my background knowledge and new knowledge.”
When Lisa Lindahl lived in Vermont, she was on five acres of land with 237 different peonies and about 250 conifers.
“I had a fabulous garden before moving here in June,” Lindahl says. “Suddenly, I knew next to nothing about gardening. The planting cycle is different. The plants that are viable are different. It’s like starting over.
“I took the class to learn with like-minded people and to get to see some beautiful Charleston gardens.”
She got some experience in helping with the society’s Daniel Island tour before completing the course.
“I was a little nervous because I don’t feel like I am an expert, but I certainly am a people person, so I enjoyed it.”
Meanwhile, she has expanded the garden already present at the West Ashley home she moved to earlier this year by adding native plants.
“I am beginning to feel empowered.”
Who takes the course?
Some who take the course have wanted to take it for years but their schedules would not permit it, says Epstein. Others have recently moved to the area and want to learn what to plant in the Lowcountry.
They met three hours a week for eight weeks, visited each other’s gardens and toured local gardens together.
Those who sign up for the course, already know botany basics, Epstein says. They learn more about the practical aspects of gardening such as why certain vegetables don’t need a lot of sun or why some shrubs fare best in wet soil.
The annual course is limited to 15 people and there always are more interested than can be accommodated, Epstein says. Those who don’t get in one year are placed on a waiting list and given first right of refusal the following year.
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.
Garden docent Robert Christiansen checks out a flower.×
Charleston Horticultural Society garden docent Catherine Latto checks out a plant in a garden on Anson Street.×
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