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How to Sneak a Peek at Charleston’s Secret Gardens

South Carolina

How to Sneak a Peek at Charleston’s Secret Gardens

By: Kathleen Rellihan

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    South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina — founded in 1670, it’s one of the oldest cities in the United States.

Charleston attracts visitors from all over the world with its cobblestone streets, ghost lore, mouth-watering Lowcountry cuisine and vast, beautiful beaches. But one of the city’s greatest tourist attractions is undoubtedly Mother Nature’s annual show: breathtaking garden blooms.

Some of the city’s most lush, intricately designed and well-manicured gardens are part of private residential estates and usually off-limits to visitors. However, every spring and fall the public can go behind the walls of Charleston’s most beautifully preserved and restored homes.

Charleston Gardens

JR P/Flickr

Many of Charleston’s picturesque gardens are closed to the public throughout the year — except during the Spring Festival of Houses and Gardens.

 

For almost seven decades, the Historic Charleston Foundation has offered locals and visitors a chance to peek inside the private gardens of some of the USA’s most picturesque historic homes during its annual Spring Festival of Houses and Gardens. This tradition allows the public to stroll through “secret gardens” full of blooming dogwood, redbud and azalea that are usually hidden from the public behind intricately designed wrought iron gates.

“During the Festival of Houses and Gardens, we typically highlight gardens in the city's Old and Historic District that represent both the classic ‘bones’ of a Charleston garden as well as the individual tastes of the owners,” said Fanio King, manager of events and marketing for Historic Charleston Foundation.

 

Barney Livingston/FlickrLandscape architect Loutrel Briggs helped define the authentic Charleston garden in the mid-20th century.

So what makes a garden a “Charleston garden?” World-renowned landscape architect Loutrel Briggs influenced much of the city’s public and private landscape traditions. A New York native, Briggs fell in love with Charleston’s springtime beauty and set up a seasonal office in the city in 1929, and then became an official resident in 1959.

 

“He is one of the individuals most responsible for the ‘Charleston garden’ style we know today,” said King. ”We are fortunate that many of his gardens remain intact and are featured during the festival.”

Briggs, who passed away in 1977, developed verdant gardens using native plants like azaleas, camellias and dogwood trees that are easily maintained in the seaside climate. He structured the design of his gardens to lead visitors to a focal point like a fountain or a sculpture.

While they may seem extravagant compared to your neighbor’s backyard garden, Charleston gardens are known for their attention to detail. “They may or may not offer a profusion of color, instead emphasizing pattern and texture,” said King. “The ‘borrowed’ architecture of neighboring historic houses provides gorgeous backdrops for the flora and further encloses these ‘secret’ spaces.”

 

Todd Martin/Flickr

A traditional Charleston garden usually features local plant life and a focal point, such as a sculpture.

Spring isn’t the only time visitors can see inside Charleston’s private historic estates. The Preservation Society of Charleston holds its annual Tour of Homes and Gardens during the fall, when tea olive, camellia and gingko are in bloom.

Beyond Charleston’s spring and fall tours, there are numerous gardens open to the public in Charleston area year round, including:

Many of Charleston’s picturesque gardens are closed to the public throughout the year — except during the Spring Festival of Houses and Gardens.

Many of Charleston’s picturesque gardens are closed to the public throughout the year — except during the Spring Festival of Houses and Gardens.
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Nathaniel Russell House Museum

The Historic Charleston Foundation's headquarters in downtown Charleston, the Nathaniel Russell House Museum, is one of the U.S.’s most famous neoclassical homes. Visitors can glimpse what daily life was like for Charleston’s elite during the early 1800s while touring the home and surrounding formal gardens.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

One of the oldest public gardens in the U.S., Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is Charleston’s most visited plantation. Since 1870, visitors have been mesmerized by the breathtaking flowers and plants — including camellias, daffodils and azaleas — in these romantic-style gardens located 20 kilometers northwest of downtown Charleston.

The Gardens at Middleton Place

Middleton Place, a 26-hectare plantation and mansion built in the early 1700s, is home to one of the USA’s oldest landscaped gardens. The classically designed European-style garden 34 kilometers northwest of Charleston is accented by swans gliding in a reflection pool. The garden blooms during all seasons: camellias in the winter, azaleas in the spring, and magnolias and crepe myrtles in the summer.

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