Darla Moore lives in a really big garden. In fact, her “garden” is roughly 1,000 acres and, since 2002, has held the official designation of Moore Farms Botanical Garden. A Lake City native, entrepreneur, and financier — whose name factors prominently at the USC School of Business — Darla offered up her ancestral croplands to be transformed into not only a place of beauty but also an example of horticultural excellence.
Eighty miles from Columbia, Moore Farms Botanical Garden has become a source of pride for the 6,500-plus people of Lake City. Approximately 14,000 visited this past year, and Executive Director Carlo Balistrieri predicts that number will continue to rise as word spreads nationally about the unique and diverse wonderland.
Darla graced the cover of Fortune magazine in 1997 under the headline “The Toughest Babe in the Business” because of her career as “a brass-knuckled Southern belle who had conquered the New York bank world,” as the magazine stated. But to the 45 staff members of Moore Farms Botanical Garden, she is their neighbor.
“She knows the employees,” says Carlo, “and they know her. She walks through the gardens regularly, sometimes with shears and clippers. Her primary residence, formerly her grandparents’ home, is surrounded by the garden.”
Carlo explains that for six generations, Darla’s family farmed the rural Pee Dee area land. Tobacco, corn, cotton, beans, and more have thrived in the sandy clay soil. While Darla’s parents raised her in Lake City proper, she spent countless childhood hours at the farm. Her tree house, in fact, still exists in one of the garden areas.
Other surviving tangible remnants of the original farm are grain augers and pieces of farm equipment. Plus, a historic barn and the railroad building remain.
“She’s extraordinarily passionate about this property,” says Carlo. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he started his career at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and has been involved in major public gardens throughout the United States as well as in Canada.
“I had never even visited South Carolina before taking this job two years ago,” he says, “but I was attracted to the property and the commitment of the people here. Their efforts in Lake City proper were also an impressive draw.”
According to Carlo, Moore Farms Botanical Garden conducts additional horticultural projects in various areas throughout Lake City, including street plantings, courtyards, pocket parks, and other public places. As the downtown historic buildings have been renovated, landscaping around them has been renewed, thanks to the efforts of Moore Farms Botanical Garden horticulturists.
“What she’s done in the town and at the botanical garden speaks to Ms. Moore’s commitment to her family, but also to the community in which she grew up,” says Carlo. “So many touches show her long association with the place.”
Author A.A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh once wrote, “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” Moore Farms Botanical Garden is about much more than just trendy floral varieties. “It’s about showing the horticulture possibilities of the South,” says Carlo.
The 65-acre cultivated garden features a Crepe Myrtle Allee, a cut flower garden, a formal garden, a vegetable garden, and many others. It grows more than 6,500 kinds of plants and holds two national caliber collections: magnolias and bald cypress.
The balance of the property is a swath of pineland, lowland, and agricultural fields that are leased to area farmers. Pine Bay is native plant focused so that visitors can see how to manage their own gardens using native plants. A bog garden, which was separate, is now part of the formal garden. In the bog are carnivorous plants: native bug eaters like pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus flytraps, as well as rarities such as Bartram’s ixia, harperella, and Harper’s beauty. Although the bulk of the lands are natural, the formal garden is considered the heart of the place — with a fountain located in its center. Seasonal plantings are surrounded by clipped yaupon holly hedges, several varieties of magnolias, Japanese apricot (Prunus mume), Loropetalum, and Hamamelis vernalis (witch hazel). However, new plants are tried every year to keep the area fresh.
Buildings on the property convey the architecture of “Southern agricultural vernacular with a twist,” describes Carlo. A water cistern, for example, resembles a silo.
Another interesting feature is the saw mill. “This is probably one of the only botanical gardens in the country that has its own saw mill,” says Carlo, “but it’s used as part of the forest management and storm cleanup plan. It has been used to mill trees from the garden into lumber for use on the property.”
The maintenance facility features a 6,000-square-foot “green roof,” with plants growing in only 6 inches of engineered substrate specially made for rooftop use. Guests are able to observe throughout the year seasonal plantings, such as daffodils, snowflakes, and tulips in early spring as well as cacti and succulents, including beautiful blue agaves, in greater detail by walking up a spiral staircase and along a grassy path. The roof is irrigated with recirculated storm water runoff captured in underground cisterns.
“Green roofs aren’t common in the Southeast, and we wanted to see if our climate would successfully support one,” says Carlo. “Most of the advice about plant material for this application comes from other climates, so we conducted research to see what would work in the Southeast. They also increase greater biodiversity and create green spaces in areas normally devoid of them. Green roofs are an example of how building infrastructure can blend with, rather than clash against, the natural environment.”
A “living wall” was installed a year later. Holding more than 70 varieties of plants, it is considered a living lab because it enables further experimentation with living walls. At the same time the exotic combinations of plant textures and colors offer visitors a fascinating peak into a creative horticulture experience.
The talented and creative staff, like a tight-knit family, is encouraged to grow and maintain a broad spectrum of plants from around the world as well as those native to the Carolinas. They also network with colleagues around the country and exchange ideas and experiences with staff at Riverbanks Botanical Garden. “We’re trying to show people what can be grown in this area,” says Carlo.
Despite its multi-faceted offerings, Moore Farms Botanical Garden is first and foremost a beloved landscape. “Darla Moore told me she wanted to give back to the land that had given so much to her family for so many years,” says Carlo, who points out that the property has been preserved for generations to come.