For over four and a half decades, Sidney Frazier has made his mark on Middleton Place, simultaneously cultivating America’s oldest landscaped gardens and a passion for horticulture in its visitors.
A chilly February wind whips through the Garden Market at Middleton Place, and the crowd collectively shivers. It is mid afternoon on a Saturday, and a rare Lowcountry snow is forecast to arrive in the coming hours, but the dozens of people huddled beneath the heaters don’t seem to mind; they are here to see a veritable legend, Mr. Sidney Frazier.
Right on time, Frazier strolls into the building. Bespectacled and dapper in a suit, tie, and hat, he exudes the confidence of a man who grew up on this land, who knows its features by heart, and who has the answers to every question the crowd may throw at him today during his annual camellia workshop. After 45 years tending America’s oldest landscaped gardens at Middleton, Frazier has made a name for himself as an expert on Lowcountry horticulture, and the rapt and satisfied audience flooding this cold outdoor venue would seem to agree. Hoisting a potted camellia onto the table, he begins his lecture, and the crowd settles in, grateful and attentive for his willingness to share his knowledge, free of charge.
Frazier first came to Middleton when he was 17 years old, in June of 1974. Having been raised on a farm in James Island, the basic tenets of horticulture were already ingrained in him when a friend, already working at Middleton Place, reached out with a job opportunity as a gardener’s helper. Frazier jumped at the chance.
“I came here that summer,” Frazier remembers, “and I saw this place, with its lakes, ponds and terraces. I saw the layout of the gardens and the formality of everything, and I couldn’t believe that this was right here in Charleston. That just blew me away. I was overwhelmed with wanting to be here full-time. So I started working here, and kept coming back every summer.”
After high school, Frazier attended Trident Technical College, taking every course the school had to offer in horticulture, botany, and plant sciences. Education in hand, he began working full-time at Middleton Plantation under the guidance of several mentors. Frazier spent decades learning, testing, observing, and reading. He consumed every book, article, and journal related to plants and their care and propagation, inundating himself with as much knowledge as he could gather. With his main objective set to learn as much as possible, Frazier quickly moved up the ranks, graduating from gardener’s helper to foreman to assistant manager, before finally settling into his current role as Vice President of Horticulture. Along the way, Frazier managed the stableyard for a time, transitioned the plantation from synthetic to organic growing practices when it was quite uncommon to do so, started an organic farm as a food supply for the on-site restaurant, began growing Carolina Gold rice as a demonstration on the land, and lent his wisdom and creativity to a multitude of other projects, classes, and experiments.
One project close to Frazier’s heart is propagating, or breeding, the original camellias given to the Middleton Family by the French botanist Andre Michaux in 1786—some of the first camellias to be grown in an American garden. After Hurricane Hugo dealt a damaging blow to the plantation in 1989, Frazier realized that of the four original camellia plants, only one remained.
“We realized that if something was to happen to that camellia, we would no longer have that living attachment to our history,” Frazier explains. “So we decided we better start doing something.”
The original propagation took place in 1997, but this particular type of camellia japonica is a stubborn plant, and propagating takes time, so thus far only one of the original camellias still remains. Undeterred, Frazier is working on propagating by air layering, a practice that encourages the plant to root while it is still attached to the parent, giving a level of protection to the original plant that does not exist with other methods of propagating. Ultimately, the team would like to have four of the original plants placed exactly where the four originals were planted centuries ago, and then grow more and disperse them throughout the rest of the garden. Frazier is confident that it is only a matter of time before that dream is a reality. This summer, Frazier will also begin an attempt to clone the Middleton Oak, which is estimated to be over 1000 years old. He also plans to add walking tours and workshops to the calendar in the summer and fall.
Today, 45 years have passed since a young Sidney Frazier first stepped foot onto the soil at Middleton Place, and hundreds of thousands of plants have received his expert care. Still, he sees himself as having changed little during his four decade tenure—save for the wealth of knowledge and experience he has cultivated over that time.
“I was this young, energetic man with a passion for horticulture that I chose to pursue,” Frazier remembers. “I think in all thoughtfulness, I really haven’t changed that much. I still have that energy and passion. I am still grateful to work here. After 42 years, I still enjoy walking through this garden. I won’t get rich doing this, but spiritually it enrichens me.”
Though Frazier spends the week working at Middleton, he often finds himself drawn back on the weekends, and he regularly visits the plantation as a tourist, concealing any sign of his identity as the caretaker of the landscape. Frazier delights in hearing the honest feedback from other visitors, and brings his notes back to his team, who he credits with being devoted and dedicated to the important task of managing such a precious estate. As for his passion for horticulture, Frazier believes that it will only continue to grow and branch out to others.
“I am increasingly attracted to the inspiration of life,” Frazier says. “I see exponential life in every living thing. When you look at a seed, what is it you’re really seeing? If you look hard, you can see so much more than a simple seed. In one seed, I see a plant. In one plant, I see the potential for more seeds. In those seeds, I see more plants. Before you know it, you have a whole forest, starting from just one seed. Plants show you life, constantly evolving over and over again, and that will never stop inspiring me. As long as I’m living, I’ll share that inspiration with others.” AM
By Jana Riley