LAKE CITY — It’s one of South Carolina’s biggest secrets —a 50-acre botanical garden with more than 6,500 plant species created in the backyard of financier and philanthropist Darla Moore.
And it’s being run by a newly created nonprofit determined to open it up more to the public, as it pursues its intertwined missions of research, education and community outreach.
The Moore Farms Botanical Garden lies a short drive outside town in the heart of Moore’s 500-acre family farm, about a third of which still is planted with soybeans, corn and other crops.
Moore said that location is part of what she calls its “quirky charm.”
“There are not many botanical gardens that are situated on 50 acres surrounded by row crops,” Moore said. “It’s really a plant nerd place.”
Garden Director Ethan Kauffman said the garden, which is almost as big as Charleston’s Hampton Park, is sort of a museum for testing and showing what can grown in the Pee Dee’s coastal plain.
“Instead of curating artifacts, we’re curating plants,” he said.
One big artifact is a fire tower that marks the garden entrance —a structure moved to the farm from the neighboring town of Olanta.
“It’s a symbol of the land heritage of this region,” Kauffman said. “It’s the icon of the garden, visible from almost anywhere.”
Another very visible view is that of Pee Dee pine forest and farmland, which surrounds the visitors driving in from the road and often can be glimpsed in the distance —beyond the garden itself.
Those entering the garden can see two different things that call attention to this area’s agricultural heritage, including purple cotton plants and a tobacco-leaf motif created by two different kinds of turf.
“That’s Pee Dee,” Kauffman said as he glances out toward a distant field and forest. “That’s who we are.”
The garden began more than a decade ago, shortly after Moore moved back home from New York.
Its initial focus was to become a pleasure garden, but that quickly evolved to a botanical garden — one that would focus more on research.
Kauffman said the garden was surveyed recently with global positioning software, and its diverse collections of plants can be tracked. “We’ll be able to map our entire plant collection,” he added.
Unlike other garden attractions, the garden’s focus is not on maximizing the number of visitors. The garden surrounds Moore’s home and tries to strike a balance between public and private.
“We don’t have to worry about getting 1,000 visitors a day,” Kauffman said. “We don’t do weddings.”
Still, it opens to the general public twice a year — including Friday and Saturday —and offers small group tours, garden workshops and venues for other special events. This weekend’s proceeds benefit the A.C. Moore Herbarium in Columbia (its namesake is no relation).
Jim Martin is a lifelong gardener and programs director for the Charleston Parks Conservancy, which Moore created five years ago.
Martin said gardens are about personalities and Moore Farms is special because of its owner and location.
“It’s just an interesting place to think that there’s this there in Lake City,” he said. “When you go there, you don’t think it’s like any other botanical garden you’ve been to. The beauty of this one is it does still feel like an estate.”
Kauffman said as the nonprofit continues to gear up, the garden will see more visitors — and will increase its outreach beyond Lake City.
“A garden is nothing if it’s not seen,” he said.
The botanical garden itself was not laid out by the work of a landscape architect, and it continues to grow and evolve.
“We’re not comfortable with keeping things static here,” Kauffman said. “I think very few things are sacred here.”
In fact, the staff estimated the garden’s size at only 35 acres until a recent survey showed that it now covers closer to 50.
One of its major ongoing studies is the green roof and living wall on top of a main support building. To date, most green roof research has been done in Northern cities and Europe, not in the South. This green roof has been planted twice, and its recent batch of plantings has shown a promising ability to withstand the hot climate.
Other aspects of the garden also remain works in progress, such as the emerging magnolia grove that has about 60 of approximately 160 different types of Southern Magnolias.
“The importance of this is preservation,” Kauffman said. “These cultivars could be lost.”
Both Kauffman and Moore noted that plants from the gardens — and some lessons learned there — are being used to beautify downtown Lake City, another of her major projects.
“This garden is part of the process of building this community,” Kauffman said, “and I think that’s one of its biggest functions.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.