Blooming Beauties

Erin McKinney cultivates color

Photography by Robert Clark

While Erin McKinney may call herself a minimalist when it comes to her yard, others see a lush garden with all of the beautiful plants and flowers that one dreams of when envisioning their own personal Eden.

When Erin purchased her home, it was 20 years old, and the yard was bare — a blank canvas for her to create her own masterpiece. Erin’s mother was a gardener, and Erin often watched her garden as she was growing up. It wasn’t until after she graduated from college that she began gardening flowers and vegetables, and she then decided to take Richland County’s Master Gardener course. The fruits of her efforts are evident with one step into her yard.

Erin likes to have something blooming year round. Her yard features several species of Japanese Maple, including the vibrant Crimson Queen; the Coral Bark, whose bark takes on a red hue when it drops its leaves in the winter but isn’t red during the summer and fall; and the Seiryu, with its beautiful green leaves. 

Erin’s garden also features a delicate scilla plant, a perennial with a strappy leaf and blue bell-type flower. Some might find these as borders in other yards, but this is a special plant to Erin, as it was from her grandmother. “I’ve moved these multiple times throughout the garden,” she says. “They’re survivors.”

Erin is also fond of planting in pots, as she can move them around to new locations based on the sun, the season or just to change things up a bit. Her yard boasts ferns, hostas, camellias, daffodils and pansies in pots. Some are paired together while others stand on their own. For those who may not have a green thumb, Erin recommends planting in pots as a good first start. “It requires some watering, but things seem to be happy in pots when they aren’t happy in the ground,” she says. “I have all of my herbs in pots, as well as my lettuce. If someone is just getting started, they can try a few things and see what works.” 

In addition to the potted plants and flowers throughout the outdoor space, Erin also likes to complement her vibrant garden with white flowers, providing a calming, natural effect to the environment. A variegated aspidistra, also known as a cast iron plant, dots the landscape with a vibrant pop of rich green. 

When Erin moved to the house, she was fortunate to acquire Lady Banks roses that were already on the property. She also found a crinum plant from the zoo, a unique perennial with a huge bulb that multiplies and blooms once during a two-week period. “Some of these are very old plants. They are tough and are mainstays in my garden,” she notes.  

While some may think gardening is a cinch for a Master Gardener, Erin believes the most challenging part of gardening is keeping the plants healthy. “I just retired, and some of my garden may not be as healthy as it should be,” she says. “I’m going to start composting to create some rich soil that I can add to my yard.” She’s also quick to point out the importance of buying a plant that will do well in the heat of Columbia. While many people love peonies, she has found that they, among many other popular plants, are hard to grow in the searing heat of the capital city. 

While Erin loves all of the plants and flowers in her garden, she has a particular affinity for hydrangeas. The flowering plants provide interest and texture throughout her garden. “I can’t remember when they became my favorite plants, but they always have been,” she says. “When I moved in my last house, I was looking for a hydrangea that I could put in my front yard that would do well in afternoon sun. It was then that I discovered the beautiful tardiva hydrangea.”

Unfortunately, the hydrangea was later pulled up by a new homeowner, as when it’s dormant, the hydrangea can look to some like a bucket of sticks. But, if they had only waited until the next blooming season to see the magnificent flowers that the hydrangea produces.

“When I moved into this house, I was at the nursery and saw these three buckets of sticks that were dirt cheap,” adds Erin. “They were limelight hydrangeas. I planted them in the front yard, where they get a good bit of sun. They are so happy there.” The limelight hydrangea is a true showstopper, with a bloom that starts out lime green, then turns pure white and goes back to a greenish color. 

Hydrangeas can grow to be very large and must be pruned. There are also mini or dwarf versions of most any hydrangea, ideal for someone with a smaller yard who wants to feature the eye-catching flower. 

Erin knows that the one thing the hydrangea loves, so much so that the word is in its name, is water. When she moved into her home, there was a hedge of French blue hydrangeas sitting under a Wax Myrtle. “They were gorgeous, but my husband doesn’t fully believe in a sprinkler system. We started limiting the water, and I don’t have that hedge anymore,” Erin says with a laugh. “All hydrangeas love water, but in the dead heat of a Columbia summer, all plants are wilted. I’ve found that hydrangeas do best with part sun, clay soil and afternoon shade.” 


For the success of her hydrangeas, Erin takes note of where the sun is and whether the plant can tolerate it as hydrangeas generally don’t thrive in the afternoon sun. The oakleaf is hardy, as it is native to this area and accustomed to the sweltering heat. In fact, volunteer oakleafs are often found in woods, meaning they have grown on their own without being planted. What a glorious find on a walk through the woods! Erin has also found that the tardiva and limelight are a little unusual, as they will tolerate more sun than most hydrangeas. 

There are numerous varieties of hydrangea, from endless summer and mophead to pistachio and twist-and-shout. Each as unique as its name, seemingly creating new colors in the spectrum.  Hydrangeas are an excellent plant for cutting and placing in a vase, bringing the beauty of the outdoors to the breakfast nook or bedside table. They are also easy to propagate, according to Erin. “All you have to do to get another beautiful plant from the one you already have, is scrape off the bark from an extended branch, put it in contact with the earth, cover it with soil, put a brick on top of it and be patient. It will root within a year,” advises Erin. The new plant can then be easily transplanted to another area of the garden. (Fun fact: azaleas and old rosebushes also root the same way.) 

When the blooming season is over, Erin is never quick to say goodbye to the beautiful flowers. Instead, she dries the plants, as their beauty will remain long after the plant has freshly bloomed. To dry her hydrangeas, Erin cuts them, gathers them into a bunch and either hangs them upside down or places them in a pot.

“I especially like to dry my limelight hydrangeas,” she says. “They have very long stems and look beautiful in a pot on the mantle or mixed with mums for a fall arrangement.”

While dried hydrangeas are very attractive and often dry to a light brown color, Erin recently noticed that one of her endless summer blooms that she dried still is holding its blue color, nearly a year later. Eventually the dried hydrangea may start to shed but, until then, it adds beauty to every setting in which it is placed — from the first bloom until its very last.

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