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Faces: From the ground up

The plant world is more than sunlight and water. Meet three locals whose green thumbs have taken them places.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff

One of the first steps mankind took toward modernization began with a seed. Cultivation birthed civilization, with our agrarian ancestors finally putting an end to our hunter-gatherer days as they planted their crops in the ground.

That simple act of nurturing a plant from the soil has done so much to lift us up. It’s not just the food we eat, it’s the beautiful spaces we create for ourselves, and the artistic expression it engenders. The following locals exemplify the simple truth of humanity: what we grow and how we use it defines us.

Charlie Jackson

Go big with microgreens

For Charlie Jackson, hopping on one of the newest trends in the culinary world started in his family’s Hilton Head Island garden.

“My mom got into it when I was younger. She started this huge garden project and I helped out with that,” he said. That burgeoning green thumb would finally blossom years later, after Jackson left Hilton Head for the College of Charleston, relocating to the city and discovering a growing need for a unique farm-to-table garnish: the microgreen.

For those not hip to the latest epicurean advancements, microgreens are essentially the plants you know and love, just smaller. Halfway between a sprout and a baby green, these tiny beets, peas, sunflowers, radishes and more condense the nutrition of the entire plant into a bite-size sprig that bursts with flavor.

“It’s the most nutritionally dense time in a plant’s life,” said Jackson. “It’s blowing up big out west. And there weren’t many suppliers in Charleston but there was a big market for it.”

Growing his goods on two 4×6 wire racks in the bedroom of his James Island home, Jackson has quickly become the go-to microgreens supplier for some of the hottest restaurants in Charleston’s legendary food scene. It began at Dockery’s where his friend Andy McLeod got the ball rolling on Jackson’s budding microgreens empire.

It’s the most nutritionally dense time in a plant’s life,”

“I used to be in food and beverage, but I didn’t like the stress of it,” said Jackson. “Andy got me started growing the microgreens, then we were doing edible mushrooms and it kind of went from there.”

In addition to Dockery’s, Jackson’s microgreens now grow at places like the uber-luxurious French Quarter eatery Tradd’s, as well as food trucks and pop-up events around Charleston. And we mean grow.

“A lot of people, when they sell the micros, they harvest them and sell them in clamshells. I just grow them in different sized flats and bring them living over to the restaurant,” he said. “They put them front and center for everyone to see. They actually cut the plants and plate them that second.”

While he says maintaining his harvest still entails some trial and error, Jackson’s farm is a smooth-running, albeit appropriately small, operation. Using detailed notes stacked in his old college notebook, he knows when the tiny buds are ready for harvest. Radishes need 4-5 days. Cilantro takes 12 days. And that’s on top of his day job. “Balancing that with a normal farming gig can be confusing, but I’m getting the hang of it,” he said. “It’s not labor intensive, but if I sleep in and forget to water at the right time, there goes the whole flat.”

So next time you’re in Charleston, take a bite of the hottest food trend, grow with its roots on Hilton Head Island.

Robert Snyder

Stop and smell the roses

They weren’t just roses. It wasn’t just a garden. When Hurricane Matthew came tearing through the vegetation of Robert Snyder’s Wexford home, spinning off tornadoes in what he calls a “surgical strike,” that storm all but erased any evidence of the obsession that had driven Snyder since retiring.

And it was an obsession. Not a hobby. In fact, obsession may not describe well enough how thoroughly Snyder had thrown himself into cultivating his garden.

“I didn’t just go at this a little here and a little there,” he said. “I was out there 12 hours a day. You couldn’t get me in the house. We’d have company coming and I’d still be covered in dirt and scratches from the roses. I was overboard. I wasn’t getting enough.”

It’s a relentlessness that Snyder had carried over from his 27-year career as a tax lawyer and investment banker in Chicago, working non-stop in a field where multimillion dollar deals were made and won and lost. “There were times I couldn’t wait for the weekend to end so I could get back to work,” he said. And when it all came to an end, Snyder was without an outlet.

People who are into roses are called rosarians,” he said. “It sounds like a religious order, and it kind of is.”

“When you retire — and I don’t think you should if you can avoid it — you can only play so much golf. I don’t think people are designed to retire,” he said, adding with a laugh, “and a lot of wives will say husbands should never retire.”

He’d seen what retirement had done to his father, who was, as Snyder puts it, “lost,” when his long career as a traveling salesman ended. It was only when the elder Snyder threw himself into his photography that he found himself. Snyder threw himself into gardening with that same vigor, making it his new calling.

Of particular pride were his roses, ordered from exotic antique rose dealers and raised with meticulous care. With names like Queen Elizabeth, Mr. Lincoln and Flower Carpet, these roses filled his retirement with renewed purpose. Laying down fertilizer, adding ironite, mulching, spraying to stem back the incessant insects and fungus-yielding moisture that define the Lowcountry. This was his new ritual, his new obsession.

“People who are into roses are called rosarians,” he said. “It sounds like a religious order, and it kind of is.”

Matthew swept it all away, and rather than rebuild, Snyder found a new obsession: writing. His debut novel, “People of Metal,” has been well received. It is a dystopian sci-fi novel centered on the not-so-distant future’s robotic workforce, machine bodies with human minds. And beyond the windows of his writing studio, a simpler, but no less beautiful garden has formed. No more lush beds of roses, but rather a few choicely planted specimens tucked among hydrangeas and palmettos. And holding a special place of honor on the pool deck, a lone Queen Elizabeth and Mr. Lincoln stand tall as reminders of what once was.

Olivia Ford

The art of floral design

All around your garden, mother nature’s gifts are emerging from the soil, stretching toward the sun and blossoming into glorious color. For some, it’s a sign of spring. For Olivia Ford, it’s art waiting to happen.

A nationally certified flower designer and frequent judge at flower shows, her medium of choice is the material mother nature gives her – the lush violets, pinks, blues and greens of flowers, meticulously arranged into stunning displays. It’s a passion she has pursued since joining her first nationally accredited garden club in 1988 while she was living in Virginia.

“I had always enjoyed floral design, but I never knew the techniques and never knew how to do it. I was more interested in the creative aspect rather than just growing it,” she said. “I can do the growing, but I’m more interested in the creating. I guess it’s my hobby.”

That first foray in floral design drove her over the years to study up on all aspects of the artform, leading her to become a flower show judge. She eventually became a Master Flower Show Judge following a decade of studying and a rigorous schedule of five courses, five subjective exams, and one final exam. Since moving to South Carolina in 2010, she has joined, and will soon serve as president of, The Avid Gardeners (appropriately, the theme of her term in office will be, “Let’s Blossom Where We Are Planted.”)

She also continues to judge flower shows, a competition of style and floral elegance that can get surprisingly feisty.

Believe me, I have seen some knock-down, drag-out fights,” she said, adding, “It doesn’t happen often.”

“The reason you have three judges on each panel is that… the three judges, when we talk, we sometimes have disagreements. In the end it will be two judges against one, where one judge feels strongly. Believe me, I have seen some knock-down, drag-out fights,” she said, adding, “It doesn’t happen often.”

And the science behind judging these works of art is much more technical and refined than most people realize. “We look at the principles of design and how they were put together,” she said, explaining the process. “The minute you look at a design you’re going to know if it’s in balance. It’s the rhythm and the line you’ve created using your plant material, that’s what leads your eyes through the design. You want your eye to move smoothly through the design.”

It’s a practiced eye that she uses not only to find the worthiest of floral designs, but to help others create their own, leading classes through Avid Gardeners and the Plantation Garden Club.

“I’m trying to show people how they can go out in the yard, pick their own flowers or plants, and create something,” she said.


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