Walking up to Sally and Robert McElveen’s home evokes the feeling of being transported to the Charleston Battery. The elegant house is surrounded by a small moss-covered brick wall, and a gated entrance into the courtyard gives way to a quaint main door on the side of the house. A frog wearing a crown greets guests as they ascend the steps.
“This frog dates back to a tradition of families receiving company. If the crown was in place, company was welcome, but if it was off, it meant they were not receiving guests. I love company, so my frog is always wearing his crown!” laughs Sally.
The McElveens built their Charleston-styled home in 1980. “Everything about this house and the garden reflects our interests and personal tastes. I wanted to structure the basic design so that it is truly ‘us,’” Sally says.
A large fountain in the center of the driveway in front of the house welcomes visitors, and pyracantha with robust red berries climbs up the outside of the front wall.
“I like for the front to be green and simple. There are so many different leaf shapes and textures here; for example, I love to mix a variegated leaf with a solid dark green one. My green plants also are very useful in flower arranging.”
Inside, the family room opens onto a courtyard complete with inviting black benches. “I wanted to design the house so that you can’t ever get caught inside — you can always step out into the garden,” Sally says.
From there, a brick pathway winds around the side of the house and out into the spacious back yard, which features lots of open grass. Another fountain bubbles under a trellis with a clematis creeping up its frame. It is surrounded by ferns and large yew bushes.
For Sally, picking a favorite flower or plant is like choosing between diamonds and sapphires — nearly impossible. But if she had to choose one, it would be her roses. She grows both antique roses and hybrids of all colors. They are tucked in lots of places around the garden, as are hydrangeas, her other favorite flower. Sally also has collected many old plants, such as a beautiful native azalea.
On the other side of the house is a tree with many different bird feeders and houses. “I enjoy watching the birds on rainy days, and my grandchildren love this tree. We get all kinds of birds, and I just love the chickadees.”
Sally majored in art and taught the subject for years, focusing on watercolor. She always has been interested in gardening and flowers, reflecting her artistic flair, and her mother and her grandmother influenced her from a young age to love putting her hands to work in the dirt.
“I like to think in terms of color and composition in the garden. I play primary and secondary colors against each other,” she says. “I also love flower arranging, which, along with art and gardening, needs balance in light, color, size and proportion.”
Sally enjoys doing her own yard work, and her passion for her garden takes her there every day. “I am not a ‘sit-down’ person. Gardening is a nice hobby for moving around and being active as there is always something to be done. It is relaxing — I can think, plan, watch the birds or listen to the neighborhood owl. Gardening is also a wonderful psychiatrist,” she laughs. “You can tell whatever you like to your plants, and they won’t tell anyone!”
One of Sally’s favorite aspects of gardening is seeing all of her hard work come to fruition and discovering if things turned out like she had hoped. She is always ready to move everything around the next year, though, if her original plan did not meet her expectations. Her favorite part of her garden is whatever part she is currently working on — it is what she is interested in at that moment, and planning and buying for it adds to the fun of the project.
Sally starts working in her garden in February, especially with the roses. She says that it is important to plan early for the spring and to get the groundwork ready. That is also when she plans her colors. “It is a year-round process,” she says. “Late winter and early spring are the times to get the foundation laid — such as getting the mulch and fertilizer to set. It is the nurturing part. You figure the rhythm out after a while.”
And her tips for success? “Just stay out there as long as you can. Have fun and don’t take it too seriously. If it doesn’t work, you can always change it next year.”