Patrick Hubbard says you can tell whether someone is a gardener in two ways. One is that the word garden tends to be a verb rather than a noun. The other is a bit more extreme. “At some point,” Pat says, “you engage in what I call zonal denial. I’m in zone 8. I have zone 10 plants, hundreds of them.”
The South has five climate zones, each based on plants’ cold hardiness. The Midlands is in the Lower South, specifically zone 8, which means that most plants can survive temperatures as low as 10 degrees F. Only the southernmost end of Florida is in the Tropical South, or zone 10, where plants cannot withstand a temperature lower than 30 degrees.
At the Hubbards’ home, mostly zone-appropriate plantings near the street belie the nature of the garden’s interior. Many of the historic homes of Hollywood-Rose Hill maintain their early 20th century facade with updated interiors. Judy and Pat carefully echoed this trend in their front yard, placing a traditional garden on the street and merely dropping hints about the tropical paradise hidden behind the house.
One such hint, an impressively large potted bromeliad, sits atop a pedestal in the driveway. “This is an Alcantarea bromeliad,” Pat says. “They’re actually terrestrial, growing in the ground. Most bromeliads are epiphytes; they grow up in trees or hang on to something. They also have lithophytes, hanging on cliffs. If you think about a rainforest, you want to be up where the light is, and things that can hang on up there — orchids, bromeliads, and ferns a little lower — have this hierarchy of light.”
About the traditional street view, Pat says, “We’ve lived in England a couple of times, and they tend to have these little front yards. That is what I had in mind.” An existing brick wall at the street holds a densely planted flower bed featuring a 100-year-old Chinese rose, a dwarf gardenia that spent its first three decades in a pot, and lace-leaf Japanese maples, all brought from the Hubbards’ former home in Old Shandon. Liriope, ferns, and creeping juniper, along with a curved granite curb from Atlanta, an interesting array of stones, and a concrete basin with carved fish, balance the display.
Enormous pots of purple Agapanthus, flanked by a stunning trellis of Gloriosa, beckon both honeybees and curious neighbors. Two varieties of Crocosmia, which are hardy in the Midlands, look tropical and have a great show, Pat says. ‘Dragon Wing’ begonia also has a spot in the garden, along with Mexican sage and some heritage chrysanthemums from Judy’s grandparents’ garden in Mississippi. Yet the observant passerby might notice bromeliads hanging on the horizontal cedar fence or occupying large pots beside the house, a mere preview of the innumerable tropical plants in the backyard.
Bromeliads are the dominant plant in the garden. Native largely to tropical regions of North and South America, they are the primary reason for Pat’s zonal denial. Bromeliads are a diverse species of plant, with 50 genera and thousands of cultivars, including pineapple and Spanish moss. Many people grow the most popular varieties as houseplants, like blushing bromeliad (Neoregelia carolinae) with its pop of red color in the center of variegated leaves. But it is exceptional to have such a large collection outdoors in this region.
Judy and Pat met as youngsters in Jacksonville, Florida, and their love of tropical plants goes back to their Old Florida lineage. Pat had a beloved aunt in Miami, where tropical plants grow in the wild. Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, he says, are like drive-through gardens, and a storm might cause branches full of bromeliads to land in trash piles on the street.
Pat’s oldest bromeliad came from a pup, or offshoot, of a plant that a neighbor rooted for his mother in Jacksonville. In the early 1970s, Pat attached a pup from that bromeliad, a Neoregelia, to a piece of firewood, along with another that a friend gave him, and they have remained together for decades. Neoregelias, the most common bromeliads, are epiphytic, meaning that their compact root systems serve mainly as an anchor for the plant, while leaves absorb nutrients and moisture, hence the nickname “air plant.” Terrestrial bromeliads, as well as terrestrial orchids, require a porous growing medium that drains well. Both epiphytic and terrestrial bromeliads hold water in urns, or cups, in the middle of rosettes formed by their leaves. The urn is also where the plant actually displays tiny flowers.
“The flowers in these things are not very spectacular,” says Pat. “We think of them like little baby birds. The color’s very nice, too. When they bloom, they tend to flush, get a color, and I think it’s partly to tell the pollinators, now it’s ready.”
The Hubbards bought their 1922 home in Hollywood-Rose Hill from Doak Wolfe in 2015. It was his mother’s home; she passed away at age 99 in 2019. Pat is a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and Judy is a mixed-media artist. The couple has two grown sons — Josh, an interventional radiologist who lives in Asheville with his wife and three children, and Will, a law professor who lives near Baltimore with his wife and teenage twin daughters.
With the help of architect Michael Haigler and contractor Wesley Farnum, the Hubbards reconfigured the interior of the house and added an elegant detached garage that has never contained a car, only an art studio for Judy and storage space for Pat’s gardening supplies and for tropical plants in winter. The crowning touch to the back of the renovated house is a powder-coated aluminum and glass greenhouse, built, like the main house had been in the 1920s, from a high-end kit. The enviable greenhouse features a vestibule with double doors and high ceilings.
Landscape architect Mark Cotterill and landscape contractor Howard Wallace worked with the couple to transform the traditional Columbia backyard into a wonderland of texture, color, and sound. Mark says the project was a group effort that evolved with Pat and Judy’s artistic vision. No square inch of space is wasted.
The terrace between the house and the garage serves as a front room to the garden. Even in summer, it is comfortable, as breezes pass between high walls. Colorful bromeliads hang from steel porch railings and a patio umbrella. Behind the home’s original garden gate, pieces of outdoor art, including a mosaic by local artist Mary Anne Ehasz, shares wall space with curated sculptures and a creatively mangled metal tree basket that Judy found on the side of the road in Shandon.
“We’re into that raw sense of beauty,” Judy says. “It doesn’t have to be very refined and elegant.” Judy’s artistic sensibility complements Pat’s gardening and organizational acumen, not only in the design of the garden’s rooms but also in the color scheme.
Judy says, “We have a pattern of colors. One is sort of chartreuse. The grasses out there are chartreuse, repeating in the back. Those are sort of the height colors, you know, like a painting. Those are lighter values, and then the purples are really important in our garden. The bromeliads use the reds, the cool reds.” The ‘Fireball’ bromeliads, Judy points out, are illuminated like little stained-glass windows by the sunlight. On a pedestal, a reed-stem epidendrum, a type of terrestrial orchid, blooms prolifically throughout the summer.
Behind the patio, a fountain rains down into a small lily pond, between an olive tree laden with fruit and a chaste tree shedding the last of its amethyst blooms. A tall, bright stand of variegated canna lilies draws the eye from the patio to the back garden. To the left of this colorful island is a sitting area, a focal center that started out as one of those pesky, inevitable construction glitches. Granite slabs that were meant to be steps had been cut too short. So, seeing an opportunity to provide an element he felt was missing, Pat asked the contractor to turn them into substantial benches instead.
“And just as in good art,” Judy adds, “this is the negative space in the garden.” The square seating area also hearkens back to the home’s midcentury modern decor. Adding to the ambiance is a substantial collection of finely tuned bells scattered throughout the property. A horizontal cedar fence is adorned with Tillandsia bromeliads, silvery air plants.
Hardscaping creates a series of outdoor rooms, with liriope, ajuga, cup flower, stonecrop, and other carefree ground covers creeping between stones and concrete pavers. Large containers are filled to the brim with palms, orchids, maidenhair fern, Lysimachia, bromeliads, and resurrection fern that always stays hydrated. Like epiphytic bromeliads and orchids, resurrection fern simply attaches to surfaces like tree bark and gets its nourishment from the environment. Mosses are constantly lush as well, and the secret, Pat reveals, is simple: sufficient water creates a rainforest effect.
With no grass to mow, ground maintenance is minimal, though Pat will pull the tiniest weed or volunteer oak seedling before it can establish itself. It was important to Pat and Judy that the plants be easily accessible, so most of the tender plants are terraced on shelves where Pat can reach them while standing. He works in the garden daily, watering every other day, unless it rains. A sound system repurposed from Judy’s old art studio provides ambient music.
Very little of the old yard remains, save for a chair repainted a serene shade of verdigris and flanked by ferns (including a 5-foot wide bird’s nest fern on a pedestal) and a palmetto tree in the shade of the holly hedge. The enormous hollies came with the property but were trimmed to tree forms, adding 10 feet of shaded planting area. One of two ancient oak trees was also preserved. The other, showing signs of disease, was removed, providing full sun for the greenhouse and garden.
The greenhouse is essential to the well-being of the entire garden. Every winter, Pat cleans the interior thoroughly and moves the most vulnerable plants indoors. He is learning to be more selective about buying new plants. “Winter forces a culling, so when I’m tempted, I remind myself of winter and what will happen,” he says. He has had to discard plants when room was not available in the greenhouse.
Behind the greenhouse, Pat keeps a collection of pots, and he is constantly rooting bromeliad pups or repotting plants that have outgrown their habitat. Pat uses a high-quality commercial potting soil (avoiding the store brands), and the type varies according to individual plant needs. Terrestrial orchids and bromeliads get a loose soil with Perlite and bark. Pat has contrived a method of rooting epiphytic plants on a base of Osmunda tree fern roots attached to a circular wire base. He is working on alternate methods, though the Osmunda roots work best.
“I was conflicted about that,” Pat says, “because on the one hand, being an environmentalist, I don’t like people going out into the rainforest and digging these things up, but on the other hand, I like them for growing my plants.” For now, he uses the Osmunda judiciously. Fertilization is complicated, Pat says. Ferns get fertilizer with high nitrogen content, and other plants get a more balanced formula. Pat incorporates Osmocote into potting soil and also uses water-soluble plant food.
Trusted friends water their garden when Judy and Pat are away from home. They love to travel and have visited gardens in Canada, England, France, Italy, Spain, and South Africa. Moving away from their larger garden in Old Shandon was bittersweet. Not only did they leave the house where they raised their sons, they also had to part with plants they loved. To benefit Columbia Green, during a garden tour they sold $2,000 worth of plants and pots.
While downsizing was not easy, the Hubbards’ garden at their home in Hollywood-Rose Hill is carefully designed to require less maintenance while also allowing them to express more creativity. Now they have more time to spend with their family, travel, and enjoy their tropical landscape.