Several of Charleston’s most enchanting gardens, traditionally hidden behind locked gates or tucked down seemingly unremarkable alleyways, will be open for limited tours later this month. Presented in collaboration with Spoleto Festival USA, the Charleston Horticultural Society and The Garden Conservancy, Behind the Garden Gate invites audiences to tour 12 exquisite private gardens across the city.
The unique, ticketed experience is made possible by the generous welcome of local homeowners for members of the public to step into their backyards.
Otherwise, passersby may only catch a glimpse through wrought-iron gates at any other time of year. Debbie Davis, programs director of the Charleston Horticultural Society, has been involved with this event since 2015.
“You get the advantage of seeing something that not everyone that comes to Charleston has the opportunity to visit,” she said.
After last year’s cancellation, 2021 is Behind the Garden Gate’s seventh year running. The 12 garden tours will be scheduled between May 29 and June 5, the first two Saturdays of this year’s Spoleto USA. This year’s lineup features many of the gardens that would have been shown last year, including two brand new gardens and three that have not been on display during the last two or three years.
“Gardens constantly evolve from year to year and from season to season,” Davis said. “What somebody saw last fall, when the preservation society had their garden tour, will be totally different — it may be the same garden, but it’s a totally different grouping of plantings because we’re now in a spring garden as opposed to a fall garden.”
Charleston gardens have a lengthy history that was greatly impacted by different botanists traveling through the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Crepe myrtle, a beautiful flowering tree often referred to as the “lilac of the South,” was one of many plants first introduced to the United States in Charleston. Loutrel Briggs, a landscape architect, furthered the Charleston garden scene with his work in the 1940s, creating a cohesiveness that can still be seen in the deep greens and crisp white plants that many gardens continue to embrace today.
“There’s such a rich history, and that makes Charleston gardens really fascinating,” said Anna Miller, a garden editor for Charleston Magazine.
Many of the downtown gardens are divided into “garden rooms,” a method of organizing gardens inspired by the intimate feeling and division of the many walled-in courtyards.
“You’d be surprised at some of these gates that you don’t think anything of, and then, you get in there, and you realize how many garden rooms are in that piece of property,” Davis said.
Throughout the rest of the year, several Charleston organizations run other tours of local gardens, including the Preservation Society tour in the fall and the Charleston Garden Club houses and gardens tour in March.
“Because the Spoleto tour is focused solely on gardens, it allows them to select or work with homeowners that have the best of the best gardens,” Miller said. “I think people and gardeners really love this tour because it’s so curated and specific.”
The self-guided nature of these tours allows viewers to take a leisurely look at the gardens, a welcome reminder of the beauty of nature after the events of the past year.
“If you want to make a day of it you can see two or three in the morning, go for lunch, and then see three in the afternoon,” Davis said. “Or, some will come see all the gardens in the morning, while some may not get there until noon.”
Attendees will be provided with a map of the gardens and lead themselves on a tour of up to six unique gardens each Saturday. Davis and the Horticultural Society will be overseeing the placement of docents throughout the gardens. Tickets are $75 each and available through the Spoleto USA website.
Mackenzie Snell is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.