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Darla’s Legacy: Moore Farms Botanical Garden

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 360-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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To people in the world of high finance, she’s a New York-based investments whiz. To golf fans, she’s one of the first two women members (along with former U.S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) at storied Augusta National.

But to the citizens of Lake City, South Carolina, Darla Moore is a “home girl” – one who has invested considerable time and capital to make her hometown both a center for agricultural and horticultural research and a destination for locals and tourists alike.

In 2002, the former vice president of Rainwater Inc., and benefactor of the University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business created Moore Farms Botancial Garden on the site of her family’s farm. Since then, Lake City has not been the same.

Some 35 horticulturists, assisted by a staff of 40, tend nearly 10,000 varieties of plants, many native to South Carolina, on a 65-acre site of cultivated gardens and fields, all funded by the Darla Moore Foundation.

“This all started with Darla in her backyard,” said marketing and communications coordinator Haley Hughes. “She wanted to cultivate more and more, and so the project grew. Then she said, ‘Hey, the (Lake City) community should be part of this.’”

The botanical garden, part of a 1,000-acre tract, offers more than just a place for research. Conveniently located just 90 minutes from both Columbia and Myrtle Beach and less than two hours from Charleston, it’s also a delightful, pastoral attraction for visitors.

“This exists because of (Moore’s) vision,” said Executive Director Carlo Balistrieri, who was recruited by Moore from the Royal Botanical Gardens of Canada. “She provided us the opportunity to do some amazing things. We exist to celebrate the horticultural history of the South.”

While the garden is open to the public, appointments are required to visit the facility. Two-hour tours can be arranged for groups of eight or more. The garden also offers at least 10 free garden open weekends a year and special events like Moore Farms Wine Stroll and MFBG Beeriest, as well as classes and school field trips.

So what can visitors expect to see at Moore Farms?

Start at the Fire Tower Center, named for an old 100-foot fire tower that was rebuilt on site as a visual landmark. Inside you'll find sitting areas and a large, colorful mural representing the gardens. After checking in, set out along the six miles of winding sand and wooden trails to see what Moore and the staff have created.

The first point of interest is Pine Bay, filled with some 400 South Carolina Coastal Plain plantings, including rare and little-known species. Other parts of the property represent Piedmont and mountain regions.

Next up is the sprawling Vegetable Garden. Ringed by hedges, it features varieties of kale, lettuce, mustard greens, bok choy, carrots, broccoli and cabbages in the winter, tomatoes, okra and jalapeños in the spring and pumpkins in the fall. Much of the bounty each growing season is donated to the Greater Lake City Community Resource Center. Youth programs are also in place to teach kids how to grow vegetables.

A favorite stop with visitors is the Formal Garden, surrounding a large fountain and within sight of Moore’s home. Camellia, chrysanthemum, crepe myrtle, magnolia and narcissus/jonquils create a riot of color in season. Nearby are several sculpted topiary plants by Bishopville’s renowned Pearl Fryar.

The Bog Garden displays plants that prefer “wet feet,” including sarracenia, Venus flytraps and native ground orchids. Nearby are the Rail House, a former Lake City railroad building now used for offices, and the Pack House, originally a packing building on the Moore family farm that serves as Moore’s guest house.

Adjacent to the Pack House is a huge mosaic turtle purchased at Lake City’s annual Artfields festival, also a Moore-inspired event. Kids will enjoy climbing on the colorful sculpture.

Then it’s on to the Green Roof and Spring House, two of the most popular stops. The former is atop the garden’s maintenance building and features 6,000 square feet of growing material, mostly peanut shells, planted with succulents, hyacinths, tulips, agaves, peonies and other plants. The garden is watered by rainwater that runs off the roof and is collected in an underground cistern.

The Spring House, with its thatched roof and rotating "wall" panels, is a perfect spot for visitors to sit and relax. Adjacent to the house are two fishing ponds, enjoyed by children attending the garden’s five summer camps each year.

In addition to their onsite work, Moore Farms horticulturalists take care of landscaping in Lake City. Those ties to the town, and to Artfields, “are very important to what we do,” Balistrieri said.

“Many of our visitors find this different from most botanical gardens,” he said. “It’s a feel (that) we’re interested in the agricultural heritage here. There’s a sense of place and an emphasis on authenticity.”

With so much to see and do, Moore Farms Botanical Garden has transformed Lake City from a place some might say is in the middle of nowhere to a place that's in the middle of everywhere. For coastal and Midlands visitors, it makes for a fun, easy day trip . Come walk, enjoy – and even learn.

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 360-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.