Tucked away behind iron gates in downtown Charleston are some of the city’s most beautiful gardens. The Charleston Horticultural Society has partnered with the Spoleto Festival for the third year to host “Behind the Garden Gate,” a series of tours of gardens that are normally closed to the public.
The self-guided tours will take place May 23 and May 30 beginning at 10 a.m. and will feature 16 private gardens. Tickets are $65 per day.
Susan Epstein, a member of the Horticultural Society who previously served as the organization’s tours manager, has been intimately involved with the planning of the event since it began in 2013 as a partnership with the Spoleto Festival and the Garden Conservancy.
Q: How are the gardens selected?
A: We try to pick out the very best gardens that are not regularly open to the public because we want this to be a unique tour. If it’s something that anybody could just walk up and pay to go in to, it wouldn’t be as attractive. We get access to, I think, the finest gardens in Charleston.
Q: What makes Lowcountry horticulture unique to Charleston and to South Carolina?
A: There’s so much horticultural history here. We’ve been a gardening community for 300 years. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this very well could be the cradle of horticulture in America. If not the cradle, it’s one of the top areas for horticulture.
Q: What are the trademarks of South Carolina horticulture?
A: Probably one of the signatures of our gardens is that they have an English influence. We were an English colony and so there’s a lot of English influence in the gardens you’ll see. You’ll see a lot of boxwoods. You’ll see a lot of French influence with parterres, which are patterned gardens. We actually have Dutch features as well in the gardens. They have more of a paisley design.
Q: Are any of the gardens in historic locations?
A: Yes, there’s actually the Sword Gate House; that garden is historic. It has been redone, but there’s a portion of it that is historic. 64 South Battery is a Loutrel Briggs, a very well known landscape architect. It was actually his first commission in Charleston. It was done in 1926. Everybody really wanted to have a Loutrel Briggs garden at that time. Two of his gardens are on this tour.
Q: Since the tours are self-guided, is there a certain start point?
A: No, you go at your own pace. You’re given a map and a brief description of the gardens. When you go into that garden there are docents there who will greet you and point out plants and tell you a little bit about the history of the garden.
Q: How do you think that Behind the Garden Gate fits into the rest of the Spoleto Festival?
A: I think they’re works of art. Gardening is another art form, so I think it’s a natural fit.
Haley Chouinard is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.