Spoleto Festival Garden Tour returns

Patti McGee has a passion for combining typical southern plants with new introductions. She said she likes to see plants look happily together and "talk to each other."

"Gardening is an art and a science," said Patti McGee, a master gardener and participant in the Charleston Open Day, a collaboration among Spoleto Festival USA, the Charleston Horticultural Society and The Garden Conservancy. "It is so much about how you put plants together from an artistic perspective. But you decide the way you use plants based on scientific consideration."

For the second year, some of Charleston's most beautiful private gardens are on view to those lucky enough to have snatched limited tickets. Today, nine gardens are featured, all of them on the peninsula.

"If you are ambitious you can walk from garden to garden," said Susan McLeod Epstein, the Charleston Horticultural Society tours manager. "Or you can ride a bicycle, as I may advise."

On May 31, eight other gardens are open for tours, including three in Mount Pleasant.

Some of the gardens are designed by homeowners, others by landscape architects. While the gardens vary in sizes, styles and water features, they all endured an unusually cold winter, with temperatures frequently dipping below freezing.

Climate is always a topic for devoted gardeners and McGee said she had lost more plants in her garden this year than she usually does because it got colder and wetter.

"Some of my tropicals were killed back," she said. "Normally they survive the winter. Now they are coming back slowly."

Despite the cold winter, climate science indicates general warming. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the new Plant Hardiness Zone Map, according to which gardeners and growers can determine what sorts of plants are most likely to thrive in a given location. The hardiness zones are retreating north because of higher overall temperatures. (Charleston is now in zone 9a, with minimum temperatures ranging from 20-25 Fahrenheit.)

"The climate is changing what you can grow here," said Mitchell Colgan, chairman of the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences at the College of Charleston.

Colgan said that plants now are growing 10 to 15 days ahead of schedule. Some birds, which were rarely seen in Charleston, such as hummingbirds, are now common.

McGee said she remains positive about gardening in the changing environment. Gardening is about learning what will take extremes of temperature, moisture and heat, she said. Plants like hellebore, not often used in Southern gardens, seem to tolerate the heat well, she noted.

A sophisticated gardener, McGee has developed a "texture" theory.

"I think plants are happiest when they complement each other," she said. "If you've got a plant with really big foliage like a camellia, I think it's nice to have something nearby that has a smaller foliage. You look at these two plants, and you feel they look happy together."

Having lived in Charleston for 58 years, McGee said the Open Day tour is a great opportunity to let residents and tourists have access to gardens that they wouldn't get to see just walking down the sidewalk.

Insher Pan and Anita Xu are Goldring Arts Journalists from Syracuse University.