The City Magazine Since 1975

Second Nature

Second Nature
Pro green thumbs Casey and Robert O’Dell carve out a bustling backyard oasis fit for family and creatures alike

Casey and Robert O’Dell will tell you their black lab, Berkeley, is “good with chickens.”

“That’s not really normal for dogs,” Casey laughs. “But he’s very relaxed; he’ll just lay down and let them hop all
over him.”

But their half-acre West Ashley garden is that kind of place. Vegetable beds thrive, but not with anything you’ve got to coax into cooperating. “Rooms” lend a sense of order, but do so organically by way of age-old camellia bushes. And formal plans, well, they’re pretty scarce, particularly when it comes to what kinds of plants come in—Australian ivy-leaved violets are as welcome as Chinese ground orchids. Meanwhile, the children chase the chickens. The chickens stalk the dog. Most anything goes.

For two self-proclaimed “nature nuts” who dream up landscaping plans for a living, this wildly organic energy is the idea. “We’re gardeners,” says Casey, “so outside is where we live. We’re weeding, planting, filling bird feeders, and the kids do all of it, too. It’s less about upkeep, more about who we are.”

“My mom used to call me ‘Pigpen,’” adds Robert, a Mount Pleasant native who began work in his family’s gardening business in high school. “I’d leave the house in clean clothes and return with dirt and grass stains head to toe.” Casey was much the same, toiling in the Seabrook soil, and later, mapping out a tiny 12- by 12-foot plot behind her Charlotte Street apartment to grow tomatoes, brugmansia, milkweed, and more. “I fit as many plants as I could into that little space,” she adds.

It’s little wonder that when they met over a decade ago at a party, the two had plenty to talk about. “We quickly became gardening buddies,” Casey recalls. “Our first date was to Cypress Gardens. We stole a Mexican flame vine, which is still alive and well in our backyard.”

When they married, Robert had just earned his masters in education and finished student teaching, and she had a successful sales job. “Shortly after the wedding, it came to us: he didn’t want to teach, and I didn’t want to sell,” says Casey. With the couple thousand dollars they had in wedding gifts, the two decided to change course and start a landscaping business. “Why not? It’s what we both love to do,” says Robert.

The sprawling garden behind their 1950s ranch in the Northbridge neighborhood along the Ashley River is proof of that. The yard was, for the most part, a blank slate when they bought it six years ago. “That’s what we liked about this house,” says Robert. “We could build a garden here.”

The yard had the right lineage, too—the original owner is said to have had familial ties to the venerable local nursery company Cross Seed and left behind the 80-plus camellias grown from seedlings and the foundations of brick boxes formerly used for turning compost. A good solid start.

Inspired by local landscape design legend Loutrell Briggs and his proclivity for garden rooms, the two went to work creating a wide-open lawn with a play area for son Mitchell, eight, and daughter Carolyn, six; raised beds for growing beets, carrots, romaine, Swiss chard, mesclun, and arugula; a greenhouse where they start annual and vegetable seedlings and protect tropicals; and a pair of hardscape living spaces—one, a small patio built over the foundations of the old compost boxes, and another, a rectangular bluestone courtyard edged with bricks handed down from Robert’s mother.

“She kept all these bricks—they went with her from house to house every time she moved. I know, because I moved them,” laughs Robert. “She passed away around the time we bought the house, so there was a sentimental reason for using them here.”

“At night,” Casey adds, “you can usually find Robert sitting in this courtyard, watching over the garden, listening to all the nocturnal creatures” (including the eastern screech owl that lives in the bamboo).

And they’re not the only ones. “We brought the chickens home two Easters ago,” says Casey of the three hens that roam freely around the backyard. Officially, their names are Oprah, Gayle, and Princess Bojangles, but she and Robert refer to them as their “garden keepers.”

“Plus, just like the vegetable garden and citrus trees, the kids get to see where some of their food comes from,” she adds. “They get to eat eggs from their own backyard.” Of course, there’s work to that, too. “Occasionally, one of the chickens will find somewhere else in the garden to lay her eggs, so you might say we have an Easter egg hunt every few weeks.”

Indeed, this garden is alive in every sense. “For us, it’s ‘what did we come across this week?” Casey says. It’s why traditional azaleas, gardenias, and fatsias live alongside holly and autumn ferns, farfugium, and needle palms. Walkways are bordered in perennials like ginger lilies and ground orchids, along with a long list of bulbs, including crinums, giant snowflakes, daffodils, narcissus, and iris.

“Recently, we had a client who wanted this giant citrus from Florida,” Robert says. “We saw it and said, ‘Yep, we need one of those, too.’”
Casey laughs. “Robert’s motto is, ‘He who dies with the most plants wins.’ Well, that might be us.”

Casey and Robert share their top five tried-and-true tips

Get your garden’s bones worked out first. “Fight the urge to go ’perennial crazy’ when you’re still working out the details.“

Amend your soil. “Don’t skimp on this step or, trust us, you’ll regret it. Working compost/organic matter into your soil before planting is the key to future health of your plants. We often tell our clients to spend the money on getting the soil right before adding plants.“

Think before you spray. “One year, we sprayed a chemical to get rid of mosquitoes, but it also took out the butterflies, spiders, and bees. We called it the ’Silent Spring.’ We missed the garden life; we never sprayed again.“

Raise your beds. A raised vegetable bed helps with drainage and makes tending the plants easier. “And for us, it prevents chickens from mowing down our crops of leafy greens.“

Know when to throw in the towel. “If there’s an area that won’t seem to grow grass no matter how many times you try, stop. It just wasn’t meant to be. Instead, rethink the plan for this area.“