Today, the small planting beds at the highly visible entrance to the former S.C. State Hospital at Bull Street don’t look like much. But come spring they will sprout and bloom into what could be the template of the landscape for the rest of the 180-acre former mental health institution campus.
Designer Jenks Farmer, who turned what once was an old softball field and pet cemetery into what is now Riverbanks Botanical Garden, took on the project with an eye to the past.
Using heirloom South Carolina plants, southern favorites and a few adaptable guests, Farmer hopes to recreate and expand upon the native landscape of the Carolina sandhills.
“One of the key principles of New Urbanism is to create a sense of place,” said Robert Hughes, president of Hughes Development Corp., the Greenville-based master developer of the redevelopment project. “One way to do that is the reintroduction of native and heirloom plants to the project.”
BullStreet is considered the largest land deal in modern Columbia history. Over 20 years, developers plan to build 3 million square feet of commercial development and up to 3,558 residential units on the site.
One way to bind such a large piece of property together, Hughes said, is through landscaping. And Farmer’s “sandhill meadow” motif is not only historically sound, but sustainable.
“There is a national trend to move towards naturalistic, sustainable landscaping,” he said. “You can see it in Millennium Park in Chicago and Colonial Park in Charleston. This planting is definitely a big effort to bring that into the middle of downtown Columbia.”
Central to the design are the use of Crinum lilies, sometimes known as cemetery lilies, that have been inhabiting the South for centuries. Southern Living magazine called them, “Tough as a mule, big as imagination, pretty as a summer dress.”
It added that “Forever, it seems, Southerners have cultivated, swapped, and rhapsodized about these bulbs, according them nearly legendary status. Yet, today, few people know anything about them.”
Farmer sells the giant bulbs and other heirloom and southern plants from his farm in Beech Island in Aiken County.
He also incorporated the Carolina, or Yellow, Jessamine, the South Carolina state flower. (Yes, it is spelled Jessamine, not Jasmine, a common misconception.) And he included some plants indigenous to the sandhills, such as the evergreen silver blueberry, and non-native adapted plants, such as a sea holly variety from South America.
“This sea holly is a South American variety which is taller and has adapted to the same type of land and climate as the sandhills,” Farmers said.
He also scattered seeds for an annual flowering plants like Toadflax.
And rather than plant the plants in neat rows or unnatural arrangements, Farmer lets the plants grow in bunches, as they would in the natural world.
“There will be a constant change of color and interest in those beds,” he said. “I want to find the spirit of the sandhills as it was long before. It’s a little island that is tied to the horticultural history of Columbia.”
Horticulture is nothing new for BullStreet. Tending plants was part of the patients’ therapy for decades. It even had a name: Horticultural therapy or Hortitherapy.
“One of the key things we’ve always tried to do is respect the history and natural beauty of the site,” Hughes said. “This enhances the natural beauty of the campus and will set the stage for a beautiful district.”
For now, Farmer’s work is limited to just the front entrance of the campus. But his design concept, if successful, could be incorporated into the rest of the site, including 20-acre public park.
“We’ve discussed a lot of different spaces,” Hughes said, noting the large public park that is being built in the central part of the campus. “The (landscape) will evolve as the development takes place.”