With the first step into Hillary McDonald’s garden, guests are transported to a private sanctuary. Rich greenery envelops her home, providing a lush virtual fence between the residence and Forest Drive. Living on a corner lot beside one of Columbia’s most well-traveled roads, Hillary has painstakingly worked to create a sense of privacy. A job well done, as her home is barely visible from the bustling thoroughfare. The whir of the cars passing by is no longer even noticed by Hillary, who has lived in her home for more than 20 years.
The lot-and-a-half on which Hillary’s home sits is larger than most in the neighborhood, and Hillary has been attentive to every inch. More than 20 years ago, she had a landscape architect, George Pickles, lay out a plan for her outdoor space. Over those years, she has turned her garden spaces into works of art.
“It is a mature garden,” says Hillary of the landscape. “I made a lot of changes and added plants as I could afford to buy them and had teenagers help me dig.” It’s a slow process, filling in a garden. But Hillary’s skills as a master gardener and her eye for what would work in the space created a visually appealing, calming setting, despite its grand size.
The lush green Saint Augustine grass is impeccably edged and serves as an immaculate supporting character to the plants, shrubs, trees and flowers that headline the space. Oak leaf hydrangeas and azaleas dot the front landscape, while daylilies sit at attention in the plant bed adding the only color, outside of the rich greens, to the front. Verdant greenery also highlights the front porch, where a unique sword fern sits nestled among an asparagus fern and a wild fern that Hillary picked up while on a walk. She always has her eye out for something new and beautiful to add to the garden, even on a leisurely walk. For her, the sword fern is a special addition. With its coarse leaf and soft, fuzzy appearance, it’s surprising to learn it’s a fern. Urns sit majestically atop the front stairs, with light green liriope spilling out of them.
It’s important for Hillary to have a succession of interesting plants and flowers in her garden, and she has come to know what works well in her space and what doesn’t. “I spend a lot of my time grooming the garden,” says Hillary. “I like to layer my plants throughout the garden and have them grow together. It provides more interest, the different variations of green, the distinct textures.” She has also proven how the placement of a potted plant can add to the overall effect of the plant bed, lending a new texture to a bare spot or bringing a small pop of color or drama.
“I think it’s important to have movement in a garden and some element of surprise,” adds Hillary. “Gardening isn’t static.” While Hillary’s front garden might look complete to visitors, to Hillary it is missing a special piece. This past year, her 60-year-old, majestic Japanese Maple, which sat proudly on the corner of her lot, died and had to be removed. The tree’s beauty was so evident that it had received the treasured tree award from the City of Columbia. “It was a beautiful tree –– a huge loss for me and my neighbors,” says Hillary. “The tree provided shade for the front bank, and while I did plant a new one, trees are a 20-year investment, and it will be a while before it provides the shade and beauty of its predecessor.”
While one shaded area was lost through the removal of the magnificent Japanese Maple, there are numerous areas throughout Hillary’s garden that provide shady spots for rest and relaxation. Her favorite spot for her morning coffee or an afternoon glass of wine with a friend is her back courtyard. A comfortable seating area with chairs and a welcoming bench sit amid the brick patio, while a grand water fountain provides a peaceful background noise. “Watching birds come to my fountain is just delightful,” says Hillary. “This is the most special area to me.”
The courtyard gets morning sun on one side and afternoon sun on the other, so the strategic placement of plants is critical to their continued success. Korean boxwoods serve as the anchor plants in the courtyard, while sasanquas, ferns and fatsia provide a full, lush setting. Orange New Guinea Impatiens serve as the focal point color in the space, providing an explosion of color to the green background. Hillary has also dotted the area with torenia, her standby, as they do well in limited sun. A ground cover of mondo grass complements the seating area and seems to endlessly bend in the breeze.
The courtyard leads to the back gardens, where wax myrtles greet visitors like polite doormen. Their strategic placement ensures visitors have a clear view to the back. “The trees are quite old and beautiful, and I love that I can look through them into the backyard. It adds an element of interest,” says Hillary. Her positioning of the wax myrtles was deliberate, as the yard is very long and she didn’t want it to look like a bowling alley. The wax myrtles break up the space, while providing interest and additional shade.
Once past the wax myrtles, an expansive garden awaits. The size of the space is surprising but the design of the landscape offers an intimate feel. Regardless of its size, take care not to call it a yard. “An English friend told me they never call gardens ‘yards’ because that is where railroads are. I believe that anyone that spends as much time, and money, on it as I do gets to call it a garden and not a yard,” Hillary says with a laugh.
A walk to the back reveals opulent plants that line the side of the garden, perfectly shielding the sound of the nearby road and providing the function of a hedge without the structured look. Loquats, pittosporum, azaleas and wax myrtles beautifully meld to build a towering wall of privacy and an elegant backdrop to the plant beds nestled among them. Hillary has gone to great lengths to feature a wide variety of plants in her gardens. “I like to juxtapose diverse textures, shapes and colors,” she says. “It’s fun to bring in plants that have varied tones.”
Not only does Hillary have a keen eye for gardening, she is also very thoughtful in her design. She has worked hard to create a butterfly-friendly garden and because of that, she doesn’t spray the gardens for insects. Hillary planted buddleia, sometimes called the butterfly plant, to attract the beautiful insects. Her herb garden includes oregano, spring onions, basil and parsley. Parsley is also ideal for butterflies, as they lay their eggs in the herb. Hillary is overjoyed when she sees insects, birds and hummingbirds enjoying her garden. “I don’t worry about pests,” she says. “I want to encourage birds and insects. If I have an occasional mosquito, that’s okay. I won’t spray for them, as it’s poisonous for the birds and butterflies.” She even accidentally discovered a unique way to keep rabbits out by planting society garlic, an ornamental plant with garlicky leaves.
Hillary’s capacious garden has many focal points from the plant beds and perfectly shaped wax myrtles, to the pops of color and the shades of green. As visitors follow the curves of the plant beds and are awed by the grandeur of design and layout, they will ultimately end up at a resting place, a bench strategically placed in the farthest point flanked by two bright blue pots. It’s here where guests can sit and take in the totality of the back garden and fully understand the time and talent Hillary has devoted to it.
Hillary has also worked hard to share her talents for gardening within the community. She has served as president of Columbia Green, a non-profit that promotes beautification in the Columbia area; she also served as president of the Crepe Myrtle Garden Club and chairperson of the Columbia Tree and Appearance Commission, which reviews policies on the planting, removal and preservation of trees. “It’s important to help in the community in whatever way we can contribute,” says Hillary.
Hillary’s proudest accomplishment has been working on an outdoor classroom at the University of South Carolina’s Children’s Center. What began as an empty lot full of weeds and broken glass has become a landscaped site featuring a dry creek bed and numerous trees, shrubs and perennials. “The outdoor classroom has become a wonderful place for kids,” says Hillary. “Not only does it allow the children to learn about nature, it also complements other subjects like math and language. It’s a magical place for the kids.”
For Hillary, it’s really all about creating magic. “Gardening is my hobby; beautification is my passion,” she says. “Each of us can follow our bliss.” And Hillary certainly is, while delivering the same for others.