A Cottage Garden

Pinny Morgan invests decades into her lush hideaway

By Katie McElveen

Photography by Emily Clay

From the moment she stepped into the overgrown back garden of a pretty cottage on Poinsettia Street in Columbia, Pinny Morgan knew she could transform the jungly tangle into a beautiful, cozy garden. She just never dreamed it would take 36 years. “It’s a work in progress,” she says. To her, perhaps, but to anyone else, the lush yet orderly garden is about as gorgeous — and complete — as they come. 

Pinny’s touch begins in the front yard, where a patchwork of textures in every shade of green rises up a hill from the street to the house. Asiatic Jasmine sets the foundation, its delicate stems and elongated leaves creating a dense cover. “I originally wanted a lawn here, but since it was so steep, a friend suggested that I plant the jasmine,” she explains. “It was a perfect solution because it’s done very well and keeps the dirt in place.” 

Closer to the house, ferns, pittosporum, sasanquas, boxwood, gumpo azalea and holly ferns are a study in green. “In the spring, the azaleas bloom and it looks like a river of white going through the green,” says Pinny. “I love it.” White is actually one of the only colors, besides green, that appears in Pinny’s garden. Not only does she adore its luminous glow, but she has found that the pale accents can be enjoyed in the evening when the sun goes down. “I’ve got some blues and purples here and there, but to me, there’s just something special about white.”

 

Structure comes in the form of a serpentine path of flat stones that curves into the verdant landscape and pair of trees, a hickory and a maple both old and twisty. On bright days they veil the emerald slope in shade dappled by fawn spots of pale light. Pinny planted the maple tree herself when her son, George, was a toddler. “For years, we had a contest between George and the tree about who was bigger,” she laughs. “George was ahead for a while, but you can see who won in the long run.” 

Though a bit more open than the front yard, the back garden is a warren of shady sanctuaries, many of which are set with statuary, arranged around a sunny center. In one corner, a lacy white wrought-iron settee glows against a wall of green. Each piece comes with a story. “This statue is from a good friend, who is letting me give it a home until one of her children has a place for it,” says Pinny as she strolls along the paths. “The iron furniture was my grandmother’s. She had the most incredible garden. Even today, all these years later, I can remember the glorious scent of all the narcissus that she grew. There were fields of it and it was just beautiful.”

Pinny credits a lifetime of exposure to gardens and gardening for creating and nurturing her love of gardening. Besides her grandmother, Pinny’s parents were avid gardeners, creating lovely spaces at their home in Savannah, Ga., where Pinny was raised. Then there’s Savannah itself, with its neat squares, each a public garden waiting to be explored. “They’re very English, with pretty hedges, and good structure, but not too much. All of that together helped me realize that a garden needs a foundation, a plan. You can’t just start planting.” 

Pinny also adores the “organized chaos” she’s seen in English cottage gardens during trips abroad. “In many ways, I set out to create my own version of an English garden here,” she says. “In England, everyone works their gardens all the time, so all your hear is the sound of clippers, never the roar of hedge trimmers or leaf blowers. It’s a way of life.”

Pinny’s later training as a graphic designer reinforced those early lessons and gave her the skills she’d count on again and again as she created and fine-tuned her own garden. “The first thing I did was to look at the space in my mind and create the curves,” she explains. “Once I had the framework, it became a matter of filling the spaces.” But Pinny didn’t just start digging. Working like a horticulturist, she studied plants suitable for the landscape and cross-referenced them with bloom season. The result? No matter the season, there’s always something blooming. “Even in August,” she laughs. “Just when you’re ready for some color, the liriope becomes a mass of purple.” 

She had to learn a lot too, from how to garden on a hill — Savannah is board-flat — to finding plants that would stand up to being run over by dogs and children. She’s had to be flexible, too. When a storm took down a huge oak tree in a neighbor’s yard that had shaded most of hers, Pinny decided to try her hand at vegetable gardening and turned the spot into an edible Eden. In midsummer, fat okra pods hung from wispy vines and shiny purple eggplant dotted the ground. Tangles of arugula and mint surrounded the perimeter like emerald-colored tumbleweeds while basil and bright-red tomatoes glowed behind them. 

“We take farm to table to a new level,” says Pinny. “We’re yard to table. I’ve learned how to make moussaka with the eggplant and its delicious.” The sunshine also gives the garden something it never had before: contrast between the new sun-drenched patches and the shady nooks. “The yard used to be pretty much all shade,” she explains. “We’ve never had this much sun, but it’s been fun to have vegetables, and I love how the light changes.”

Entering the garden from the house is like emerging into a painting, albeit one alive with buzzing bees, tittering birds and floating butterflies. “I love the motion from the insects,” says Pinny. “I’ve got bird feeders, butterfly bushes and anything else I can think of to attract them, and the organic spray from Mosquito Joe kills the mosquitos but doesn’t affect anything else. We’ve even got fireflies!” 

Set with black iron furniture and surrounded by a trio of old trees, a brick patio is a peaceful place to pause and take in the stories the garden tells, from jokes shared at family gatherings to the provenance of the plants, the destruction of storms and the history of the garden’s art. “This spot has been the site of many bridal luncheons and celebrations,” she says. It’s easy to see why: tucked under an umbrella of high trees and surrounded by lush greenery, the terrace is cool as a glen and manages to feel both private and expansive. It’s also a perfect spot to take in some of the tiny details that give Pinny’s garden its character. The giant ajuba, for instance, that rims the courtyard is possible only because Pinny thought to leave a narrow gap of soil between the brick of the courtyard and the brick wall that surrounds part of it. 

The serpentine walk that loops through a shade garden layered with hosta, camellia, boxwood, Annabelle hydrangea and star magnolia echoes the curve of the path that winds through the front yard. In another corner, shades of green in varying textures — creeping fig, polka-dot plant, fatsia, boxwood, acuba — come together like one of those rare, perfect outfits that look like each piece was plucked from a different closet and end up, magically, looking fabulous together. 

However, chatting with Pinny for more than a few minutes makes it evident that her garden is the result of years of patient observation, careful planning and an artful eye. Oh, and hard work. Lots of it. Pinny didn’t just choose the loquat tree that shades the patio. She brought it to Columbia from Savannah, then planted it. And that conga line of tree-form ligustrum — each about 15 feet tall — that line the rear wall? Pinny laughs. “I picked those up at a going-out-of-business sale. Twenty for $20. They barely came up to my knee when I planted them.” 

Although the garden looks stunning from the patio, stepping further into it reveals lovely surprises as the landscape unfolds into garden rooms, each a complete work of art unto itself. In one, a curved hedge of boxwoods surround a riot of butterfly bushes. Within another, a path circles a hickory tree. Here and there, sculpture looks as if it grew up in the garden. “The only thing left in this yard that was here when we moved in is a camellia,” says Pinny. “We’ve planted everything else.”

In Pinny’s hands, no space goes untended. Instead of using a narrow, three-sided space for storage, Pinny created an Italian garden, complete with a white-stone bottom, a gurgling fountain and statuary. Intimate yet regal, it could be located in Florence or Rome. Instead of repairing a driveway crack with concrete, Pinny brought a bit of Charleston to Columbia when she replaced the damaged section with cobblestones, creating a tiny lane across her drive. A narrow bed separating the yard from the driveway is a mass of cleyera, daphne, roses, quince and even rhododendron, which blooms pure white. Heart-shaped boxwood topiaries are set with statuary and blooming plants, transforming them into sheltered coves. 

Pinny’s next door neighbor made the wise decision to say yes when she asked, years ago, if she could take care of the space that separates their homes. Today, anchored by a double oak-leaf hydrangea, it extends the beauty a bit farther. But Pinny doesn’t take full credit for the transformation. 

“This garden would not be here without my friends, neighbors and family,” she says, pointing, as an example, to a substantial iron garden bench. “This bench is a great example. I found it in a junk shop at the beach. I wanted it so badly that I rented a truck to go get it. I was so excited to put it in the garden! Of course, it never occurred to me I’d need help getting it out of the truck. But my neighbors rounded up a group of men, and together we got it out. It makes me smile every time I see it.” 

Cooper’s Nursery provided plants and much-appreciated advice when Pinny was getting started. Her children helped, too, although grudgingly. “It’s hot, sweaty work and most children, including mine, would have rather been doing something else,” she recalls. “But guess what? My son George now has an absolutely beautiful garden. He definitely got the gardening bug.” 

Then there are Billy Davis and Buck Evans, who have worked at Pinny’s side since the very beginning. All take special pride in what they’ve help create. “My favorite story is about George and Billy,” recalls Pinny. “One day when George was 12 or 13, he went out and did a bit of work in the yard. I didn’t think anything of it until Billy knocked on the door and asked me if George had been working in the garden. When I said that he had, Billy said, ‘You need to tell him to stay out of my yard. He’s going to ruin it.’ I couldn’t believe he was that invested, but it thrilled me. It’s amazing what a little spark of passion and persistence can do.”

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