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Anne Moore
Photographs Anne Moore

Imagine a yard littered with rusted out cars, with a burnt old house bulldozed to the roadside. Does this conjure up the perfect site to build a dream house? Jim and Audrey Hartin could see beyond the rubbish of the junk-riddled old homestead to the gently rolling land and mature trees.

The Hartins set out several years ago to build their dream home on acreage northeast of Columbia, S.C. The resulting Victorian house, with its wrap-around porch, looks like a restoration, not a replica, setting on the hillside within the shade of the ancient cedars, crape myrtles, hickories, black walnut, and old mulberry tree.

“The original home was here around the turn of the century. Back about 1970 it had burned. The owners at that time had just demolished it, pushed it all out next to the road, and left the place. Not too long after that, a young man bought it.” 

The buyer, a mechanic, turned the property into a junkyard. “There were probably a hundred automobiles in here, piled all up,” Jim remarked. “He moved out and left all that stuff. For about four years, it lay abandoned again, when we found it. We could tell it was an old home place. We purchased it and began to clean up all of the debris that was on it. Even now, when I’m planting, I’ll run into radiator hoses or clamps or pieces of wheels or no telling what, that’s been buried. It’s still an ongoing project to get it all cleaned up.” 

It took Jim and Audrey about a year to build on the old homestead site. “We made numerous trips to small towns, such as Ridgeway or Boykin, where we could find old original homes, and found little points of interest that we liked about each house. Then, we sat around the kitchen table at night, drawing up our own plans as to how we wanted it to look, and subsequently built it from that.” 

“It’s an era that, I understand, ran from about 1850 until 1920,” Jim explained of the Victorian age. “That’s just an era we both dearly love,” he said. “The daintiness, the fanciness, the gingerbread trim, the fashions that the ladies wore back then, pretty and elegant. Everything was so refined and nice. It’s just fortunate that we both like that kind of thing.”

Their vision has included a parterre garden surrounded by a picket fence. Old roses bloom among the bulbs, perennial daylilies, shrubs, and seasonal annuals planted for color in the formal beds. An ornate Victorian pergola is the centerpiece of the side yard. Nearby, a small garden house, decked out in gingerbread details, exudes Victorian charm. It has its own picket-fenced garden, and a porch complete with rocking chair. Brides and photographers have discovered these settings make for romantic bridal shoots. 
The lady of the original homestead planted the ancient trees. Black walnut tree roots exude a substance that kills most plants trying to grow under them. Jim said they kept experimenting to find plants that would survive, and have had success with spiraea, ivy, nandina, and plum yew. The garden originator also lined her driveway with narcissus, which still come up and bloom every year, marking both sides of the old circular driveway. 

“We left everything that I could find that she had planted. The old well house and the old hen house with its egg nests are still there just like she left it. I just enjoy walking around out there and thinking what it was like a hundred years ago. Times must have been awfully hard back then.” 

The gardens are a mutual endeavor. “It’s a joint effort; it’s my wife and I. It is a love that both of us have. I think that is so important that we both share the same hobbies, interests, and things like that. She’s the one with the knowledge about the plants and I’m the hole digger and put it where she wants it and that kind of thing,” he chuckled.
“We take little day trips. We always find interesting little nurseries to go to and pick up interesting plants we can stick back in places, to remind us of the trips we took.”
Charleston Urns, near the front door, ooze yellow pansies in the winter and fill up with spikes of purple diascia, large leaved angel wing begonias sporting red flowers, and variegated vinca, trailing to the ground by summer’s end.

Tall snapdragon flowers show off vibrant blossoms of red, pink, and yellow well into May. Jim advises planting the snapdragons in the fall, the same time as the pansies. “You can get them in the spring, but they don’t do nearly as well. They need to over-winter to set their roots and get stronger. That way they get taller and they won’t topple over. 

Confederate Jasmine greets visitors at both entrances to the porch. Its sweet smell floats on the breezes, awakening the senses even before the star-shaped white flowers are seen. “I need to trim that and shape it all up but I was instructed ‘You will not do that until after they get through blooming.’” Laughing, he says, “We won’t do that until all of the smell-good is gone.”   

The junkyard has given way to small linen and lace covered tables set with china, ready for tea. A lawn sweeps up to the house. Flowers bloom in well-tended beds. A new queen crowns the land where rust and rubble once reigned.

NOTE: This article first appeared in South Carolina Homes & Gardens magazine.  

Posted September 16, 2014

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