By Tom Shaner, PGMS executive director

How many tea plantations are there in the United States? What’s the largest, oldest live oak in South Carolina? How can newspapers help you save on planting seedlings? Can you resolve conflict with a smile? When selecting nursery stock for trees, are a few minor scrapes on the trunk okay? What is the history behind the courtyard gardens of Charleston, S.C.? If you had been one of the lucky ones to have participated in the recent PGMS Regional Visitation program to Charleston, S.C., you would know the answers.
On March 18, as the clouds began to break and the sun came out to offer a beautiful 72-degree day, nearly 75 members of PGMS grabbed a box lunch and climbed aboard a bus or into their cars to begin an exciting educational-packed two-day visitation event in Charleston. Their first stop was the Charleston Tea Plantation, the home of American Classic Tea, the ONLY tea grown in America. It is located on picturesque Wadmalaw Island in the heart of South Carolina’s low country, its grounds include 127 acres of Camellia Sinensis tea plants and a working tea factory. Tea plants are disease and pest resistant and the harvesting of crop is pretty simple – approximately every two weeks during growing season, just top off the 3½ to 5 inches of new growth and move the leaves to the tea production line.
From the tour of the tea plantation, originally a cotton plantation, PGMS headed to a stop at the amazing Angel Oak reportedly the oldest thing — living or man-made — east of the Rockies. Angel Oak is a live oak tree approximately 1,500 years old. It is native to the low country and is not very tall but has a wide spread canopy. The Tree (one instinctively capitalizes the word when talking about this colossal site) stands in an obscure wooded area of John’s Island, some 12 miles beyond the Ashley River. The Tree is huge and it is ancient. Towering over 65 feet high it has a diameter of spread reaching 160 feet, a circumference of nearly 25 feet, and covers 17,100 square feet of ground.

Following the jaw-dropping and picture-taking opportunity at Angel Oak, it was back on the bus for a trip to The Battery area of Charleston, specifically to the White Point Garden park and then to Hampton Park where PGMS guests were given a tour of the park as well as the city’s greenhouses. Of special interest during the greenhouse tour was a briefing on how the city utilizes and recognizes volunteers as a major cost-cutting labor source. Many PGMS members were delighted to learn of an easy-to-use technique for making seedling pots out of newspaper and to watch as the volunteers assembled the paper pots. The advantages were obvious: no cost for pots and no negative environmental impact in terms of the plastic or rubberized containers.

Stunned with all that had been learned already, the PGMS day-one tour was still not over – there was one more stop to make at the Joe Riley Stadium. Riley Park, affectionately called “The Joe,” is a 6,000 seat state-of-the-art facility named for the Honorable Joseph P. Riley, Jr., Citadel 1964, Mayor of Charleston. The state-of-the-art baseball facility opened in April 1997 at a cost of $19.5 million. The Citadel plays all of its baseball games in the park, located just off the campus overlooking the Ashley River. The Citadel shares the facility with the Charleston Riverdogs (a minor league baseball team).

Day one was a long one, so when everyone returned to the PGMS headquarters hotel a wonderful reception of cheeseburger sliders, pulled-pork quesadillas and lollypop chicken bites awaited them.

Friday, March 19 was an outstanding weather day in Charleston, but those with PGMS had to spend the first part of their day in the hotel attending classes. It paid off as the class content was excellent and enlightening for all. Classes included “Conflict Resolution with a Smile” and “Attitude and Motivation Wrapped in EASY” as presented by Chad Connelly of Freedom Tide, “Tree Mythbusters” as presented by Liz Gilland of the South Carolina Forestry Commission, and “Maximizing the Efficiency of Your Irrigation Systems” as presented by Justin Watts of W.P. Law, Inc.

After the courses, there was a short break for another tasty box lunch – this time sitting in the hotel’s courtyard and enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze. Then it was on board the bus for a trip to the historic Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, Magnolia Plantation has survived for centuries and witnessed the history of our nation unfold before it from the American Revolution through the Civil War and beyond. Opening its doors to visitors in 1870 to view the thousands of beautiful flowers and plants in its famous gardens, it is the oldest public tourist site in the low country, and the oldest public gardens in America. As PGMS strolled the serene gardens a burst in color from the many camellias and blooming trees (due to the usually cold winter this year, many flowers such as the azalea were just coming into bud), one could imagine the period of the Civil War when gentile ladies dressed in elegant hoop dresses meandered through the gardens on their way to the Ashley River which served as the main transportation route from the plantation to Charleston.

While PGMS took a bus route back to Charleston for its final stop on this delightful visitation program, members were nevertheless amazed to learn how the tides of the Ashley River were used to move traffic inland and back to the city again.

The final horticulture stop featured a walking tour of the renowned courtyard gardens of Charleston. These gardens often serve as a room-extension to the elegant homes located between Broad Street and The Battery. Their elegance was divine and again left one to imagine days of yore when gentry gathered to sip sweet tea while enjoying a cool breeze in the low country.

Let me take you on an imaginative brief tour of a garden starting with a lead through the handsome iron gate onto a terrace made from old, salvaged brick. Notice the exotic, rich green fronds of a sago palm before you. They seem to be hiding something. Move forward onto the formal bluestone terrace, and look to your left. Not just one, but a pair of beautiful sago palms flank a fountain and basin that’s trimmed in the same salvaged brick. The fountain serves as a focal point and also adds the refreshing sound of splashing water that masks outside noise. Your next destination is a small, private sitting area just outside the master bedroom. Though it’s part of the overall garden, it feels distinct thanks to a few simple techniques. First, a change in paving material signals a transition. You move from formal bluestone pavers to casual brick and then back to bluestone again. Second, the elevation changes as you ascend a trio of steps. Finally, partial screening provided by tree-form ligustrums and a low hedge of Japanese boxwoods offers the illusion of a separate outdoor room. Viewed from the sitting area, the courtyard appears lush, serene, and very private. A beautiful way to end a lovely and highly informative PGMS Regional Visitation program.

The next stop on the PGMS Visitation agenda is already causing quite a buzz as we head to historic Boston on July 22-23. Details of this trip are now available online at