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Harriet Charles: A Life of Roots and Blooms

“Sometimes I feel like my own roots go way down in the earth,” said Harriet Charles, owner of South Gate Design and lover of all growing things. Demand for her elegant, intuitive designs, and spots in her workshops keep Harriet busy – and she enjoys every minute, energized by the soil, the flowers, the sun – and her deep connection with the natural world.

Harriet and her husband of 43 years, John, have three children, and she described them to me by the plants they love. “Our oldest, Julia, loves succulents, our middle child, Lillian, loves flowers and our youngest, Austin, has his apartment filled with plants.” All three children grew up in Myrtle Beach, graduated from Socastee High School, and they all now live in Atlanta. Describing her husband, Harriet simply said, “ John is a physician, loves to fly, read and is the love of my life. He supports me in everything I do.”

Ironically, even though Harriet’s life is completely enveloped in flowers, that wasn’t the original plan. “I was born in Florence and raised on a farm. Obviously, planting, growing, harvesting were always topics of conversation. My dad had a TV show for farmers, ‘Southeastern Almanac.’ My mother grew vegetables and flowers, and there was never a day she didn’t have a vase of flowers on the table. My dad loved to have flowers on the table in his office. I come from people who love flowers and nature and beauty.”

After high school Harriet first attended USC in Columbia, but, being young and restless, she decided to move to Washington DC where she finished college and received her Masters in speech-language pathology from George Washington University. Following graduation she worked with head injured and stroke patients in a hospital setting. After meeting and marrying John, who grew up in the military, the couple moved around while John himself was in the military and attending medical school.

Harriet and John moved to Myrtle Beach 30 years ago to be closer to their families. After moving into her home in Briarcliffe Acres, Harriet spent a great deal of her free time working in the yard. “In 2000 I had a wedding reception at our house for two wonderful friends. The reception spilled out in the yard, and folks liked what they saw and asked if I could help them with their yards – that’s when I started South Gate Design.” The name and Harriet’s original logo comes from an iron gate she had made 20 years ago for her home.

“I consult with clients, tell them what will grow well in their yards, help them create a design, buy the plants, and place them where they belong. Then, either the client or their landscapers do the actual planting.” Harriet has done extensive, ongoing training through the years, but, in 2015, she attended a workshop in Washington State led by well-known flower farmer, Erin Benzakein that inspired her to create what is now her favorite part of her work. “It was a three day workshop with a small group of 20 or so people from all over the world.” The group discussed floral industry practices, did floral design, and picked flowers from Erin’s incredible flower fields to make arrangements. “It was the most magical thing I’ve ever done in my life!” said Harriet, still excited about the experience. “We worked in a 100 year old barn, and the people who attended, and Erin’s team, were amazing. During the first floral design segment, I turned to the people near me, and said, ‘I’m going to conduct workshops.’ It’s a way to step away from what you do normally and just be creative.” I asked Harriet if participants need to have experience in floral arranging. “Absolutely not – I can teach anyone to make a pretty arrangement – no one has left with a bad arrangement yet.”

Harriet’s workshops are a feast for the senses, with beautiful, tasty food and gorgeous flowers to arrange. “In the workshops I concentrate on how to make a floral arrangement – it’s a relaxing, meditative experience. It’s hard to concentrate on your to-do list when you’re working with flowers – and it’s fun!” Mothers and daughters, friends, family groups and even people from out of town that have seen Harriet’s work on Instagram fill her workshops. “Some are held at our family farm in Florence. I am planning the next one to be held there in May.”

“Anyone can make a beautiful arrangement to enjoy at home,” Harriet told me when I asked for some flower arranging tips. “Grocery stores have beautiful flowers these days, just look for a mixed bouquet, or splurge and buy three different types of floral bouquets, each with a different flower. Better yet, go to a nursery and buy a flowering plant that you can put in the ground after you snip the blooms.” Harriet said to arrange the flowers to look like they do in a garden – a little wild and organic. “Don’t make a ball; nothing is the same height in nature. It’s okay to have something pop out of the top and trail out of the vase. And always use greenery – if you have camellias, gardenias, or azaleas in your yard, cut the greenery for your arrangement.” She added another tip – look for seasonal flowers as the focal point – roses in the summer, mums in the fall, etc.

Harriet does a couple of smaller weddings each year, and shared her thoughts on planning the bride’s bouquet. “Based on the colors the bride wants to use, we then decide on the shape of the bouquet based on the bride’s body type. A small person doesn’t need to carry a large bouquet.” Harriet will ask the bride about her favorite flowers to get an idea of her focus. “I always tell them, I’ll get your flower choices if they are available, but even if I have to make substitutions, it will still have the feel you’re looking for.”

South Gate Design is not Harriet’s only business – and as you might guess, her other endeavor also involves roots and blooms. “For 30 years my three sisters and I have been in business with the founders of Forest Lake Greenhouses, Tim & Lisa King. Recently my son and nephew became involved as well. At Forest Lake Greenhouses in Florence, we grow mostly blooming plants, from poinsettias for the holidays to poppies, begonias, hydrangeas, petunias, and many more in the spring. Right now there are eight greenhouses bursting with plants.” Continuing, Harriet said, “I work at the greenhouses a few days a week now. Several times a day customers will exclaim that Forest Lake Greenhouses is their happy place! It is a joy to spend time around all the tropical plants, the succulents, the baskets of mixed flowers and all the blooming plants. It is a sight to see!”

When Harriet takes her hands out of the dirt, she loves photography, taking photos of her arrangements and most anything unusual and beautiful that interests her. She’s also diligent about keeping her mind and body strong and healthy, working with a personal trainer a couple of times a week and taking yoga classes before the sun comes up. “I also love traveling – near and far. I love all types of field trips, from seeing how a cannery operates to visiting art museums. The world is a fascinating place.”

I’ve always been in awe of flowers. There is an otherworldly quality to blooms, perfection in every stage of their growth. I asked Harriet, someone who works with flowers daily, to talk about her connection. “Someone asked me if I talk to the flowers – or if the flowers talk to me? I said yes to both – if you ask a flower where it belongs in an arrangement and pay attention to its structure, the flower will tell you where it’s supposed to go.” Harriet continued thoughtfully, saying, “Of course, I love beautiful, thriving, gorgeous blooms but I often keep them and watch them wither – I have a whole bowl of flowers that I’ve kept because they are so gorgeous in all phases of life. As they grow old they shrink – wither a bit and fade, but are still so lovely in an entirely different way, just like all of us.”

Flowers speak to my soul. If anyone is having a bad day and gets close to nature they can have a better day,” Harriet said as we ended our chat. “Being around flowers, I don’t have many bad days but if you are feeling down, take off your shoes and go outside – there’s so much beauty there that we just rush past all the time! Slowly walk around and closely observe the details in nature. In my mind, nature has restorative powers of which we can all take advantage.”

To learn more about Harriet’s work, including when her next workshop is scheduled, visit www.harrietcharles.com, or find her on Facebook, on Instagram @southgatedesignand also @forestlakegreenhouses.