Tom Johnson, director of gardens at Magnolia Plantation, is retiring from his role in Charleston and readying his return to his native Georgia after more than a decade of work on one of the nation’s only remaining romantic gardens.
Magnolia owner Drayton Hastie Jr. spent two years making trips from his home in Charleston to Georgia starting in 2007, trying to lure Johnson and his wife, Mary Ann, to Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. At the time, Johnson was a national horticulturalist for the American Camellia Society.
Unfortunately for Johnson, who initially rebuffed the requests, Hastie found the gardener’s weakness: asking for help.
“For the next 14 years, we worked with the family to develop the gardens to where they are today — to put Magnolia back on the national stage,” Johnson said.
Johnson spent his formative years studying plant propagation in school. But, his first major job was working on the gardens at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. After finishing his work there and moving to the American Camellia Society, Hastie found him.
“I fell in love with Magnolia the first time I walked through the gardens,” Johnson said. “I was in my mid-40s. That’s when a man realizes there’s more behind you than there is in front of you, and in that moment, I knew that the restoration of the gardens would consume the rest of my career.”
He was right.
Throughout his course as what he jokingly called the last American romantic gardener, Johnson enlisted help from gardens across Europe and the rest of the globe, tracking down historic and ancient plant material to restore the gardens at Magnolia.
The restoration aimed at taking Magnolia back to Drayton family’s 1676 plan. The modern landscape at Magnolia includes the historical work of enslaved Africans on the plantation, maintained since the grounds opened to the public in the 1870s. Today, Magnolia is among the oldest public gardens in the nation, making the restoration a necessity to Johnson.
“We Americans like everything new and improved,” he said. “So, a lot of the older plant material had been gone and replaced with newer varieties … Taking these newer varieties back to the older ones truly makes this a historic garden once again.”
Many of those historic plants were camellias, a flower that blooms in the dead of winter. Now, the gardens comprise a collection of 27,000 plants, according to Southern Living.
The plants weren’t the only things that Johnson had to adapt to in Charleston. As tourism exploded in Charleston, Magnolia became a popular destination for families.
“I was unprepared for how popular Magnolia would be,” he said. “Once we started restoring the gardens and started putting it back on the national stage, the volume of tourists — we were looking at up to 5,000 people a day.”
Then, COVID-19 grinded that growth to a screeching halt. Johnson said that it was actually a blessing in disguise in some ways.
“We were on an unstable growth path,” he said. “COVID slowed us down so we could reevaluate. It got so bad we were having to close the gates in the middle of the day because we were out of parking.”
But even as the pandemic was taking its toll on tourism, Johnson was already plotting his retirement. But he wanted to see the gardens through the crisis.
“We’ve done it,” Johnson said. “Magnolia came out of the pandemic quicker and more solvent than any other garden in America. We have actually filled the reserves back up again, and we are ready for the new year.”
Though the pandemic isn’t over, it seems like Magnolia has made it through the worst, and Johnson is ready to move on.
Johnson plans to spend retirement in Georgia growing native plants with his friend and colleague Ernest Koone, a top native plantsmen who has been vying for Johnson’s involvement in a plant nursery.
“It’s funny,” Johnson said. “I went to school to learn how to grow plants, and now, I get to end my career the way I always wanted to start it.”