About 150 people from 18 states checked into the Desoto Hotel in Savannah last weekend for the Southern Garden History Society’s 32nd annual meeting. The two-day event included talks by landscape-design and preservation experts, and tours of gardens that traditionally are not open to the public. On the third day, according to SGHS Immediate Past President Lucy Hitch, attendees are offered the opportunity to tour additional sites that are a bit further away from the conference.
For many of the gardening enthusiasts, Liberty County was the most logical choice for a day trip. With two former rice plantations that now boast beautiful gardens and breathtaking coastal views, it’s no wonder about two-thirds of the preservationists jumped at the chance to visit the area. Early Sunday afternoon, 100 guests on chartered buses rolled into Dunham Farms in Sunbury and LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation and Botanical Gardens in Riceboro.
Conference co-Chairwoman Caroline Harrington, of Darien, coordinated the Sunday tours. She said the tours focused on camellias and rice plantations because the society’s 950 members are interested in historic gardens and their preservation.
Low-hanging moss greeted the conference attendees as they made their way through Dunham Farms’ pristine salt-marsh property. Laura Devendorf, who co-owns the farm with her daughter, Meredith Devendorf, met the group and apologized that their famed camellia and azalea blooms had been stunted by winter frosts. Even so, there was no shortage of scenery to admire.
For Devendorf, gardening and a love of flowers is a source of family pride and history.
“The first International Monetary Fund Conference took place in Savannah in the 1940s, and my mother did the banquet decorations using flowers from our Springfield Plantation gardens, which we’ll tour,” she said. “The plants came from the famous Gerbing Gardens in Florida over 75 years ago and are mostly one of a kind.”
After the tourists enjoyed a light lunch and photos of the property’s gardens in bloom, they were treated to spirituals and a Geechee-Gullah history lesson by eight members of the McIntosh Ring Shouters.
Devendorf said the area is rich in African-American history, something they like to commemorate and honor.
“We’ll be celebrating African heritage in 2026,” Devendorf said. “I hope to see you back here.”
As the group strolled through the camellia garden, marveling at the meticulously maintained landscape, one of the visitors quipped, “You don’t sleep much, do you?”
Devendorf admitted it’s true.
“I’m 82 and I have a lot of energy, so no, I don’t sleep much. Besides, there is a lot to do,” she said.
In addition to the countless hours logged by the mother-daughter duo, only one full-time worker and one part-time worker help with upkeep on the 9,500-acre farm.
SGHS member Kathleen Perilloux, a landscape architect from Baton Rouge, La., has been bringing her husband, Charles, to the conference for about 20 years. She said that Baton Rouge and Coastal Georgia are in the same zone, so looking at plant types, shapes and textures is relevant for work and her personal garden. And her husband, a retired engineer, doesn’t mind accompanying her.
“This conference is the three most educational and relaxing days on my calendar every year,” Charles Perilloux said.
In addition to stopping in Liberty County, the gardening enthusiasts also visited Savannah’s 22 squares, the Georgia Botanical Garden, the Isle of Hope and Lebanon Plantation.
For more information about the Southern Garden History Society, go to www.southerngardenhistory.org. For more on Dunham Farms and LeConte-Woodmanston go to www.dunham farms.com and www.leconte-woodmanston.org.