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Gardens, gardening and gardeners
A professional South Carolina gardener talks about his love for the land

by Donald Miller

Jim Martin is the vice president of horticulture at Brookgreen Gardens in Pawley’s Island.
South Carolina attorney and activist Nekki Shutt says Jim Martin is the best gardener she knows. A quick look at Martin’s resume confirms Shutt knows what she’s talking about.

His 18-year career in public horticulture began at the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden in Columbia, where he managed all horticultural aspects of the Garden for 12 years. He played a key role in the planning and development of the 90-acre botanical garden established there in 1996. Currently, Martin serves as the vice president of horticulture at Brookgreen Gardens in Pawley’s Island, S.C. A life-long gardener, Jim is also the garden editor for Charleston Magazine and Charleston Home. He’s also a garden lecturer, photographer, designer, and a professional floral artist.

“I’ve been into gardening since I was a kid,” Martin chuckles. “I grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio and we moved to South Carolina when I was in the eighth grade. By the tenth grade I knew I wanted to go to Clemson and major in Ornamental Horticulture.”

And that’s exactly what Martin did. Two weeks after graduation he went to work for Riverbanks.

Martin’s garden at home includes lush tropicals like elephant ears and banana trees.
“Throughout college I did all these internships so I had amassed a pretty impressive portfolio. By the time I got out of school I had enough working experience to get a job right away. Says Martin with a laugh: “I think I’m one of only a few people that was actually able to get a job related to my degree.”

During the next twelve years Martin firmly established himself as a leading authority on horticulture.

“In my ninth year there we started the new botanical garden,” Martin recalls.
Previously the Riverbanks facility had served only as a zoo on the Richland County side of the Saluda River. With Martin at the helm, Riverbanks expanded to an additional property owned by the facility on the Lexington County side of the river and created the Botanical Garden. A walking bridge was also created to tie the two properties together.

Over the years Riverbanks has captured national attention. Hailed by Horticulture magazine as one of 10 gardens that inspire and by HGTV as one of 20 great public gardens across America, Riverbanks boasts 70 acres of dramatic and themed gardens showcasing more than 4,200 species of native and exotic plants.

“It was an incredible experience working there,” says Martin. “When you are some place for twelve years, people really get to know who you are. It was a great thing for my career, it was a great time.”

Planting in large pots allows Martin to rearrange portions of his garden at a moment’s notice.
But after spending more tha n a decade in the same place, Martin was ready to move on to face new challenges.

For a brief time he worked at the Mepkin Abbey Botanical Garden in Moncks Corner, S.C. But only a few scant years would pass before the beauty of Charleston would prompt Martin to make another move.

Today he calls Charleston’s James Island home and daily makes an hour and a half trek north to Brookgreen Gardens in Pawley’s Island.

Despite the travel, Martin is enthusiastic about doing the work he loves.
“Are you kidding? I would garden 24 hours a day if I could,” he happily insists. I love getting my hands dirty and just being in it. For me it’s a time to disappear for a little while and be real close with the earth.

At Brookgreen, a sculpture and botanical display garden, Martin is in charge of everything green. “I manage the staff that takes care of all the plant life,’ he says. “I come up with new designs and themes for the gardens. We’re bringing in new stuff all the time.”

Founded in 1931 by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, the site maintains multiple varieties of new and old plant life, including several 250 year-old Oak Trees.

Who says a plant has to grow out of the ground? With the aid of strategically placed planters and this rustic trellis Martin has created a garden on the exterior wall of his house.
The brainchild of the Huntingtons would become a non-profit institution to provide a showcase for American figurative sculpture within a refuge for native plants and animals. It is the first sculpture garden in the United States and is designated a National Historic Landmark.

Martin wasn’t kidding when he said he would garden 24 hours a day if he could. He maintains a strikingly beautiful garden of his own at his residence on James Island.
“I’ve designed so many gardens over the years. “The whole idea of designing a space for people to live their life in a comfortable way is very gratifying. I like to think what I do as a career gives people the chance to slow down and enjoy their lives.”

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