It was early in the morning when the group met in Camden, traveling to the history-laden town from various corners of the state.
They carried measuring tapes and plant identification books, digital cameras and clipboards.
They had come to see the gardens, but not as ordinary visitors. They were on a mission from the Garden Club of South Carolina: To document the state's historic gardens.
And they were ready to get to work.
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"We're relaxed about how we're doing this, but we'll move like the wind," Judith Dill said to group of volunteers assembled in the driveway at Duffield, a home with a more than 3.5-acre garden. The owners have completely restored and added to the garden, which is home to a series of garden rooms planted in the 1920s and includes some camellias former owner Helen Harmon originally ordered from China.
Dill chairs the S.C. Historic Landscape Initiative with the state garden club. On this day, she was handing out assignments, sending one group to the terraced interior courtyard, another to the south lawn, a third to the garden that hugs the driveway. And the list went on.
"Do not worry about your drawing. That's half the fun of it - creativity 101," she said to those charged with mapping the garden.
Instead, she told them to document what was there, take pictures of landmarks, write the names of plant material, and include detailed descriptions on their hand-drawn maps.
It's a daunting task, taking stock of the historic gardens in a state known for both history and horticulture. So far, the garden club has documented about 50 historic gardens around the state, from Beaufort to Camden to Aiken. It hopes to do at least 100 more. The club considers a garden historic if it is at least 50 years old, and many in the survey are much older.
"This is not one of these quick things. It takes a lot of thought, a lot of planning, a lot of work force around the state," said Betsy Steele, president of the S.C. Garden Club.
And why does it matter?
"Why? To save our garden heritage. That's the primary reason," Dill said. "We see the devastation that occurred after Hugo. We've seen these parking lots. We've seen urban sprawl. We've seen owner neglect. ... I believe very strongly that our gardens in South Carolina tell the history of our state. "
INSPIRED BY PROJECT IN GEORGIA
The seeds for documenting the historic gardens were sown by Jim Cothran, a South Carolina native and an Atlanta-based landscape architect who has worked with Historic Columbia and other groups in the state. In the 1960s, Cothran was the original recipient of the Garden Club of South Carolina's horticulture scholarship (he studied at Clemson University and the University of Georgia), and he has always been quick to help the club with its work, Steele said.
"All through his career he has given back to the Garden Club of South Carolina.," she said.
A few years ago, he told the group about the Garden Club of Georgia's work documenting that state's historic gardens.
"It seemed like something worthwhile," Steele said. "The garden club is a good grassroots group to do this."
So with the help of the club's first intern and volunteers from around the state, the documenting of the gardens began.
Dill starts the process by contacting the current garden owners and finding out everything she can about a particular garden. The list of historic gardens started with one compiled in World War II by the club's second president, Lucy Pomeroy of Camden. At that time, she started the Visiting Gardens list, which included gardens around the state that could be visited by club members on certain days.
That list has been the starting point for the current landscape documentation, but Dill said others are still being added.
"Every time we go somewhere people say, 'I know another garden that's 100 years old,' " Dill said. "Our list is not static."
Along with being at least 50 years old, gardens must have some historic significance. A garden could have special plant material, a well-known landscape designer, or it could have been the home of a person of historic significance.
Once the groundwork is done, Dill plans a party.
"We call them parties. Garden parties are the best thing in the world. Everybody wants to go," Dill said. "If you say, 'Come to a work day,' forget it."
The volunteers show up for a day of work - for the love of history and the love of gardening.
They walk around the gardens, enjoying the landscape and learning from each other.
"Is this an autumn fern?" asks one volunteer, while another consults a plant identification book.
"Here's an abelia, trimmed tight. mondo grass, azalea, nandina, Mexican sage," another volunteer called out to a partner, who was recording it on paper.
When the group documented Bloomsbury in Camden in March, 52 volunteers turned out in nasty weather to help.
"They were troopers," Dill said. "We got out and got rained on and sleeted on. You just march on. The common thread is our love of gardens."
Dill loves to talk about a garden's history, and think about those who tilled the land in years past.
"You look at these plants and you think about who brought them, who nurtured them, who built homes and farms around them," she said. "You look at the different sorts of properties in South Carolina. It's amazing. Even looking at those ruined (gardens), you think of the pride and foresight that many of the early planters felt."
The landscape initiative is trying to capture what the gardens look like now, and perhaps help future gardeners understand South Carolina's landscape in the early 21st century.
"We're trying to provide a snapshot in the life of a garden," Steele said.
Sometimes that means a garden is a showplace; other times it has fallen on hard times.
"But even if something is now in disrepair ... in five years somebody might love it and it will be back to its glory," Steele said. "This is a window of what's there now."
The club's intention is to archive all of its material in the S.C. Historical Society in Charleston, where it will be accessible to graduate students, landscape architects or anyone else with a reason to need the information.
"Ultimately, if we can find the funding. we would like to create a book to list all of these," Steele said. "It's gardening history. that's why it's important, especially in the South."
KNOW ABOUT A HISTORIC GARDEN?
-If you know of a garden you think the Garden Club of South Carolina should consider including in its survey, e-mail Judith Dill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-To be considered, a garden must be at least 50 years old and historically significant.
-For more information, see http://gardenclubofsouthcarolina.org