Rice lessons at Middleton Place

A stalk of Carolina Gold rice grown at Middleton Place.

Associated Press

It’s good to know people in hot places.

Middleton Place is a popular historic site along S.C. Highway 61. The horticulture program at Trident Technical College recently toured the grounds, but not with just any old tour guide. Sidney Frazier, vice president-horticulture, gave us the historical as well as behind-the-scenes horticultural tour.

Frazier started working at Middleton Place in 1974. He knows a few things about the 65-acre garden.

A trip through the gardens will take a couple of hours. The master plan encompasses many elements of surprise with narrow pathways that are raked once a week and secret outdoor rooms that feature sculpture or formal gardens.

The gardens are a haven to several thousand azaleas of various colors. A crew spends the majority of summer racing to prune them before mid-July because azaleas bloom on the previous year’s growth. Pruning into August will remove this valued growth and result in sporadic flowering next year.

Red-headed azalea caterpillars arrived early on the plantation this year. Usually a problem in August, these insect pests have been known to mob azalea branches and strip the foliage. The flower buds, however, are not harmed.

Because they feed in packs, azalea caterpillars can easily be removed. Frazier prefers to scout for infestations and prune them out. Organic treatments, such as Bt, can be used for more widespread problems. These bugs tend to return to the same azalea, so if you’ve seen them in your yard, you’ll probably see them next year, too.

Azaleas bloom for a couple of weeks. But Frazier aims to keep something in bloom throughout the year. Spring is easy. Then hydrangeas, abelia and crape myrtles flower throughout the summer. And in the winter, the plantation’s second prize jewel will flower: Camellia japonica.

There are numerous camellia cultivars that range in size and bloom in a variety of colors from early winter to early spring. Several thousand can be found throughout Middleton Place, some as old as the gardens. Camellia sasanqua, another popular camellia species, has smaller leaves and blooms throughout the fall.

The most severe pest camellias encounter is tea scale. This insect hardly looks like a living organism. The microscopic insect exudes a hard shell for protection, thus the name scale. Tea scale doesn’t harm the plant as much as it affects the appearance. Yellow blotches on the top of the leaves are the result of scale colonizing the bottom side.

Frazier treats scale with neem oil and horticulture oil, organic products that have no negative side effect on beneficial insects. He also prunes older camellias to improve air movement and increase light penetration to maintain healthy growth.

Year-round blooming also is accomplished by interplanting annual flowers with overlapping blooming periods, such as caladiums and pentas, and those that attract bees and butterflies, such as salvia.

Roses fill some of the gardens with summer color that, unfortunately, are not missed by one of the largest pests: deer. These four-legged herbivores will prune flower buds weekly. In Frazier’s experience, deer deterrent isn’t effective. However, for some gardeners, deer and rabbit repellent works well as long as it is applied frequently, especially after rainfall. It’s a smelly product, there’s no doubt about that.

Middleton Place also cultivates a rice field throughout the year, an authentic demonstration of rice farming along the Ashley River. It is as scenic as it is functional. And volunteers are welcome.

Lastly, the Middleton Oak anchors one of the gardens. This live oak maintains a trunk diameter larger than the Angel Oak. The spreading limbs gracefully reach out toward the water and sway in the pluff mud breeze. It’s a sight as Southern as the wetlands beyond.

There’s so much history on the plantation. And sheep mow the front lawn.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at tony. bertauski@tridenttech.edu.