There is nothing like walking past a well-kept herb garden and inhaling the fresh scents of rosemary or basil. Melinda Allen keeps her herb garden right at her back door, in easy reach of the kitchen. “The sun exposure, and the convenience of the location make it a perfect fit,” laughs Melinda, “although basil and parsley don’t do as well there.”
Melinda is an accomplished gardener and fabulous cook, using herbs in her cooking and garden flowers on her table.
Melinda’s passion for gardening began with her love of cooking. She and her husband, Baker, whom she affectionately refers to as “Bake,” were interested in homegrown food long before it went mainstream. “Traveling exposed us to a variety of interesting and delicious vegetables and fruits that we were not able to find in South Carolina 20 years ago,” she says, “so we decided to try growing our own.” Some of these delicacies included fava beans, arugula and maché, all of which you can find in many grocery stores today.
In addition to cooking, Melinda also loves spending time outside, so gardening was the natural product of these two passions. “I just love any excuse to be outside and be a part of the life that is taking shape out there, from weeding to planting. For me, it is very relaxing. Enjoying all of the work you have invested into your yard makes it worthwhile.”
Bake first became interested in gardening through the influence of his grandmother, who was passionate about roses, and he still has a rose cutting from one of her old bushes. “I like to talk to the roses over a glass of wine in the afternoons. It is a great way to unwind after work,” he says.
Baker Allen sought the advice of professional gardener Mary T. Dial in designing a formal parterre for his prize-winning roses.
Baker claims that the trick to success with roses is to talk to other rose gardeners and to ask rosarians for advice. Satish Prabhu, a world famous rosarian, lives in the Columbia area and has been instrumental to the success of the Allens’ roses. “Most gardeners just love to share their opinions, which is in stark contrast to cooks.
There is no secrecy for excellent ‘garden recipes,’” Bake says.
The Allens worked on their garden for years, but it wasn’t until they asked friend and professional gardener Mary T. Dial, the Itinerant Gardener, to assist in constructing a formal parterre for the roses that everything finally came together in harmony. “Building the parterre changed the whole atmosphere of the back yard. We wanted to make it a destination in their garden, and that is exactly what it now is. It transformed an area for vegetables into a spectacular and elegant rose garden,” says Mary T.
The parterre, an ornamental arrangement of flowerbeds of different shapes and sizes, soon became the main emphasis in the garden and the inspiration behind all of the other elements. It has a lovely white bench centered against the back wall, and the Allens can even have dinner outside among the roses.
“I had always wanted to do a formal parterre but had never before had the opportunity,” says Mary T. “It was the perfect place for one, and it looks fabulous all year round. The parterre gives the garden structure and symmetry, but the edge is softened by the white picket-fence that surrounds it.”
Mary T. grew up in a family of gardeners and remembers rooting boxwoods and azaleas with her grandfather to sell at a Winn Dixie in Augusta, Ga. on Saturday mornings.
“I have always loved everything about gardening. I enjoy taking a plot of regular land and creating something beautiful out of it — organizing it into usable space. Gardening is just so satisfying in every way,” she says.
In 1994, Mary T. decided to make an official business out of her lifelong passion. She claims that most of her knowledge comes from experience and travel as there is only so much that books can teach about gardening.
The Allens also have enjoyed implementing their travel experiences into their garden, which is always changing and evolving as a result of innovative ideas they get from European gardens. Even their pool looks like it came straight from Tuscany.
“We wanted a pool, but we also wanted it to be consistent with the design of the whole garden,” notes Melinda, “so we decided on a raised pool design with two fountains at the center.”
At the end of the pool is a picturesque white bench swing that ties in perfectly with the rose parterre. On the other side of the wall near the pool grow beautiful hydrangeas and the relocated vegetables.
Mary T. Dial used gorgeous “Glory Blue” hydrangeas to create a haven for sitting and enjoying the quiet moments of the Allens’ pool and garden.
“The vegetables don’t do nearly as well here, but Bake’s roses won!” laughs Melinda. The change did have its benefits for the organic vegetables, however, as there is now no need to worry about keeping the many sprays and chemicals needed for the roses away from them.
Hydrangeas, one of Melinda’s favorite flowers, in addition to roses and camellias, grow especially well in this section of Shandon. Mary T. explains that the leaves dropped by the old oak trees onto the ground over the years have made the soil very acidic. “There is no better place in this city to grow hydrangeas,” she says.
Large camellia bushes grow in many areas around the house, and the scent of tea olives adds to the inviting atmosphere. Miniature roses, which were just planted this past year, adorn small niches around the yard.
“The hardest part about gardening is the challenge to grow perfect roses in South Carolina,” admits Bake.
Blue Moon Landscaping assists with the general upkeep of the yard, and The Perfect Rose comes weekly to spray the roses. “It is so helpful to have someone else keep up with the constant spraying that roses require,” says Bake.
From cooking to traveling to instrumental family members, this garden has been shaped by a myriad of influences, making it into a rare and elegant piece of artistic talent.