HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

The William Scarbrough House and Gardens at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, Savannah GA


J.B. Jackson said a landscape is “a portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a glance.”


Detail of a bench back in the gardens

While in Savannah for a long weekend to celebrate my mom’s milestone birthday the group of us in town went to visit the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. It was on my dad’s list of places to visit while he was there and so we all went along.

Quickly I lost the group as my hunny and I were drawn to the call of the landscape, as does seem to happen – you too?  All it took was the hint of something well-pruned and a glimpse of a flower to distract us from the museum entrance, drawing us around the corner and into the garden. Though the garden is not large, it was at least an hour before we finally made inside the museum.

Located in the William Scarborough House,  which has a fascinating history of its own and is considered one of the “earliest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the South”, the museum features amazingly detailed models of ships used in trans-Atlantic trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.  While there are also paintings, artifacts and relics of the time, the models are certainly the show-stealers. You could spend days taking in the details of just one of the models, and though the museum is small, I am sure each time you visited you would notice something new in the models.


The museum entrance

In researching the city, I did take note of the Savannah Botanical Gardens and the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens but scheduling and relying on Uber for the weekend’s adventures did not allow for visiting them this time around. We will be back with our own cars and our own kayaks and for a longer stay next time. Not knowing about this garden just a block away from our hotel, I had figured this would be a garden-touring-free weekend and was pleasantly surprised to find this little gem hidden behind the brick walls of the museum.  Even better yet, the garden is free and open to the public 7 days a week, you do not have to visit the museum or pay admission to access this lovely space, just walk in from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

There appears to be an older garden area, closer to the house and a newer or at least newly revitalized garden area called the North Garden. The two sections have very different feels to them. According to their website, this garden is the “largest private gardens within the historic district of Savannah.”  With its roots in a traditional Parlor Garden, the garden seems to now function primarily in 2 ways: as an event space and as a storm water management tool. At least as J.B. Jackson has inspired, that is what I could comprehend at first glance of the space. According to Favretti’s Book ,For Every House a Garden: A Guide for Reproducing American Gardens, a parlor garden is a garden very close to the entrance of a house where the lady of the house would grow fragrant flowers and useful plants like herbs. The garden generally reflected the interests of the woman of the household and would vary from home to home (p. 23).

The interests of the various women who called this estate home do not seem to be in evidence any longer at this garden, however the priorities of the current caretakers and the municipality itself are certainly made clear particularly in the newer portion of the garden.  The event space dominates the area, a large covered dance floor and beautiful trellis and pergola seem lonely and cavernous without gussied up folks steeped in celebration. As you enter the space when there is not an event in progress, as we did on a drizzly gray day, you only hear the joyful tinkling of a mysterious fountain somewhere that can be heard but not seen without some snooping around.


This fountain is tucked into a brick corner. You can hear it throughout the garden but cannot see it from any place in the gardens except from its own little corner.

Just beyond the event space is an obvious storm water management garden, neatly juxtaposed across the space from a collection of bananas and lemon, limes and grapefruits keeping warm along a brick wall. The native plants line a swale, obviously meant to capture rain water. A docent informed us the city was having problems with flooding and asked if portions of the garden could be used for this purpose and the museum  obliged with two different garden areas.

These two newer areas are interesting to compare. One is more naturalistic, with native plants and a curvilinear design, while the other is quite formal with a palette of just one type of plant and straight lines. It is interesting to consider these two different gardens designed and built to address the same ecological problem but looking so different.


The more naturalistic of the two storm water management gardens on the site.


A maple grove and straight lines are featured in the more formal of the storm water management gardens on the site.

The garden website also mentions a belvedere, now those of us of a certain age may think immediately back to that 80s/90s sitcom – Mr. Belvedere, or is that just me? Never while watching that show did I imagine that belvedere is a noun and means a rooftop gallery with a view. And so here is one. You can walk up a set of neatly camouflaged stairs and take in a view of Savannah and the water beyond as well as the bridge bringing people back and forth between here and Charleston, SC. I suspect that belvedere can get pretty crowded at sunset. From here you can also get a bird’s eye view of the gardens as well.

While looking around you will also notice a, let’s say, less intensively maintained garden space with a lot of different plants and the only signage in the gardens. This is the economic gardens display and features plants that were part of the historic economy of Savannah and those that were transported by the ships the museum is dedicated to educating about.  Cotton, and it’s accompanying Boll Weevil trap, rice, olives and other plants are on display with their labels and signage explaining their significance.

While a relatively small garden, the various rooms and multiple options for moving through the space make it feel big and can occupy quite a bit of time.  Outside of the major “garden rooms”a hallway of sorts under a trellis of Thunbergia grandiflora, Blue Sky Vine and then past windows of Ficus pumila, Creeping Fig clipped to keep the window as a window draw you around to different places and different views.

Throughout water features, large containers, benches and metal objects draw your attention to the next space. There were not a lot of flowers at the time of our visit, but that did not matter. It was interesting and unique.

You can take a virtual tour of these gardens, but I encourage a visit if you are in the area. The nod to history, the understanding of the value of access to designed green spaces for all, the use of plants and gardens to solve environmental problems and the diversity of the plantings in the small space are worth an actual visit when you are in the area.

3 thoughts on “The William Scarbrough House and Gardens at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, Savannah GA

  1. Belvedere is also a town in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate from San Francisco.

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