IPM program keeps things green

When you are in charge of acres of lawns that bear the nickname “America’s Oldest Landscaped Gardens,” you’d better know what you’re doing.

The centerpiece of Middleton Place is the Butterfly Lakes area, two lakes that form a butterfly shape and draw the eye through the terraced lawns to the Ashley River in the foreground.
Photos courtesy of Middleton Place, unless otherwise noted.
Sidney Frazier and Matt Jackson, assistant manager of the Middleton Place Garden Market & Nursery, discuss plant health.

Vice president, horticulture, Sidney Frazier is not only responsible for 21st century guests, but he carries the burden of more than 250 years of tradition at Middleton Place in Charleston, S.C. “The way to stay on top of things is to do the right thing at the right time of year,” Frazier says. “Pay attention to the seasons and what the plants require.”

Frazier is in charge of the 65 acres of landscaped terraces, gardens and park that surround the house and plantation. “Our bedding plants have been around for a long time and have some history,” he says. A touch of serendipity propelled Frazier to run the plantation’s green program just about the way it was run in the 18th and 19th centuries, while maintaining the look and feel of an amazing garden.

Frazier began his career at Middleton Place in 1974 as a garden helper. For the next eight years, he studied and learned the care, maintenance and importance of preserving the historic landscaped gardens. While working at the plantation, he earned his degree in horticulture at Trident Technical College in Charleston, S.C.

About that time, he stumbled across a tape on organic practices. “It took me back to the farm where I lived as a child-green manure and other practices—I was fascinated.”

Meanwhile, he was working his way up through the ranks. In 1982, he was appointed director of horticulture/gardens manager.

Taking a risk on behalf of the environment, he approached the president of the Middleton Board and asked whether he could try integrated pest management (IPM). The boss gave the green light, and Frazier dived in. Today, under his guidance, Middleton Place has all but abandoned the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on both turf and ornamental gardens. “We use maybe 10 or 15 percent synthetics,” he says. “We use synthetics only when we come across anything too difficult to handle.” Sometimes, however, they let nature take its course.

“This is an 18th century garden, not Disneyworld,” he says. “It’s not a golf course. I don’t have a problem if sometimes the leaves have holes in them.” It only adds to the authentic feel of the place. In fact, too lush a turf would be out of place historically.

The IPM program has proven effective on shrubs and trees throughout the plantation’s formal gardens as well as the turf. Frazier’s use of beneficial nematodes to attack pests in their nymph and larvae stages has been successful.

“Trident Tech taught me why things work,” he says. “IPM is how things work.”

He started small, making manure tea bags and using the fertilizer on the grounds. “We used crocus sacks and made a tea in 55-gallon drums,” he recalls. The turf responded well, but it was tough to produce do-it-yourself fertilizer every couple of weeks.

“Cost is everything,” Frazier acknowledges. So, he went to a local company that produced organic fertilizer and bought from them. While providers come and go, he finds there always is a supply of organic material available at a reasonable cost. “We can buy cheaper than doing it ourselves, and it requires less labor,” he says.

There are two types of turf in the gardens, centipede grass and St. Augustinegrass. “The greensward consists of centipede, for the most part,” Frazier says.

The greensward lawn is cut every other week in the growing season to a height of 3 inches. “The greensward lawn receives 100 pounds of 8-2-4 per acre in late spring,” Frazier says. “We do not treat the greensward for any pest beside fire ants,” he adds. This is more to protect the guests than anything else.

The main lawn receives 200 pounds of 8-2-4 per acre in the late spring. “We have not limed in 10 years,” he notes.

All of the granular material they apply is organic. “We use it for everything,” he says. The big hit of material in the early spring is to give it a green pop. “Things come on strong around here,” Frazier says. “We want the plants to be ready before summer hits.”

In the late summer, they may make another fertilizer application, but, Frazier emphasizes, it is not on a rigid schedule where they feel they must apply material on a given day or week. “We watch the plants and add nitrogen or bone meal as required. That is the way we do it with everything,” he says.

The turf in the gardens is also cut to 3 inches. “We use power rotary mowers and reel-type mowers,” Frazier says. “Our reel mowers are made by Toro, and our rotary mowers are Woods.”

Once used as a bowling green, the Octagonal Garden was laid out on a 45-45-90-degree triangle plan typical of the geometry at Middleton Place.

They use the reel mowers on the terraces and the rotary units on the flat areas. “We mow on Mondays and Tuesdays, because on those days we have the fewest guests,” he says. In fact, much of what is done around the plantation is done so guests are not inconvenienced.

“We do a lot of edging in the gardens. Paths are edged weekly,” Frazier says. Mulching is done regularly for several reasons, including weed control, moisture and aesthetics.

There are eight full-time gardeners under Frazier’s supervision. The team is responsible for total maintenance of the plantation. Frazier oversees the planting and growth of all trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, including pruning, fertilizing and spraying.

Middleton Place is a National Historic Landmark. The land was first granted in 1675, just five years after settlers arrived in the Carolinas. The gardens were laid out in 1741 as part of the philosophy that there should be a triumphant marriage between man and nature. All of the 18th century gardens are laid out as “rooms,” each with a carpet of grass and a special significance.

The centerpiece is the Butterfly Lakes area, two lakes that form a butterfly shape and draw the eye through the terraced lawns to the Ashley River in the distance.

The Butterfly Lakes are bordered by 155-foot-long flower beds. The formal lawn was a reception area for visitors coming up the Ashley River (the main route of transportation back then).

Irrigation

For the turf, the plantation has a Toro system that was installed in the late 1970s. “It needs to be upgraded, but it still does the job,” Frazier says. Water is pumped from the Butterfly Ponds, the Reflecting Pool and the Rice Mill Pond. In addition, there are lakes across the highway from the main plantation that can be used when needed. There is also irrigation for the beds of annual plants.

The turf irrigation is all on timer. “Because of the amount of daytime traffic we get, the irrigation runs at night and early in the morning,” Frazier says. “We hate to have to do it at night because of fungus problems.”

The soil is very sandy, so water does not stand long. Brown patch is common on a few areas that have heavier soil. “It’s the same areas, year after year,” he says.

When they need to handle a pest problem, “Bordeaux mixture is our fungicide for the turf,” Frazier says. “We use promethryn milky spore, dipel, prentox and beneficial nematodes for insect pests,” he adds.

“We’re doing pretty good without using synthetics,” he says. He thinks back to when they used to do regular preventive sprays by the calendar. “That killed both the good and the bad insects,” Frazier notes. “It didn’t give the plant a chance to defend itself; plants are stronger than we think.” When they do spray, they are careful with the materials and where they are applied.

“Monday is the best day to treat,” he says. Work starts early so the job is done when the gates open at 9 a.m.

His philosophy today is much the same as the early Low Country planters: work with Mother Nature.

Right after the Civil War, the gardens became overgrown and neglected as people simply tried to survive. Then, early in the 20th century, a direct descendant of Henry Middleton, J.J. Pringle Smith, inherited the plantation and spent many years and many dollars restoring and enhancing the grounds.

In 1786, French Botanist André Michaux gave the Middletons the first four camellias to be planted in an American garden. They still bloom through the winter. Today, descendents of those plants form the Camellia Allees, where the trees and shrubs are pruned to form green walls and meet in arches overhead.

Michaux also is responsible for introducing Giant Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) to the Low Country area.

The Rice Mill Pond once was the center of Middleton Place industry with a mill that turned a horizontal spoked wheel to power the mill. Today it is an irrigation reservoir.
Photo courtesy of Stello Photography.

Success of this program of natural and biological garden management became evident in early 1997, when Frazier successfully propagated Middleton’s oldest surviving camellia plant, thought to be the only one of its kind in the United States.

He used air layering, a method the Chinese developed centuries ago, to produce a new but genetically identical plant from the original. For years his attempts had failed, but he now has successfully removed three air-layered sections from the old camellia.

“IPM is not that much cheaper, but it is more healthy for the environment, my workers and the visitors,” Frazier says. “Kids can roll around on the turf and not have to worry.”

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio.