Drive through this small residential area in Greenwood, South Carolina, and you'll see rows of tidy homes with large expanses
of grass covering the landscape. One house, though, looks different. With the exception of a tiny strip of lawn in the front,
this yard is filled with beautiful ornamental trees, showy shrubs, and lush perennials. There is no doubt these homeowners
are plant people.
John and Billie Elsley live in the modest white home with the gorgeous surrounding landscape, but they're not your average gardeners. John is the director of horticulture for Klehm's Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery, finding and developing superior plants for the mail-order company. Billie, a retired horticultural therapist, volunteers at a local elementary school teaching children about gardening. They both enjoy getting their hands in the dirt. Billie keeps the many containers filled, and John diligently tends to the yard. Over the years, the couple has turned their lackluster landscape into a botanical wonderland.
Working the Soil
John believes you need deep, rich soil for a successful garden. He doesn't use a tiller, because they mostly break up the top couple of inches of earth. Instead, he amends the soil the old-fashioned way. Using a spade, he digs down and turns it to a depth of about 12 inches. With a garden fork, he breaks up the dirt clods and mixes in leaf mold and finely shredded pine bark containing fertilizer.
Some areas of the garden feature raised beds. After constructing the walls, John filled the beds with topsoil and organic matter. Years ago, when he first started building the beds, John used cedar posts. But he has replaced the old wood with low stone walls. He loves the look of this material and knows it will last forever. The stones also allow him to make smooth curves, as opposed to the linear look of wooden timbers.
Today, the couple's whole yard, covered in a foot of rich, black soil, allows plants to sink their roots down deep into the ground. The area includes several big hardwood trees, and each year the Elsleys let the leaves fall into the beds where they slowly break down to replenish the soil. They don't use insecticides. Plants thrive in the nutrient-rich surroundings, making them more robust and resistant to diseases and insects. Their strong root systems also help promote drought tolerance.