Among Charleston's most charming features are its gardens, most of which are locked away behind ornate, wrought-iron gates. And while wandering around the quiet streets of the Holy City's historical district and peering through the gates of antebellum mansions is always fun, there's still no better satisfaction than getting the thumbs-up to actually go inside. That's what Spoleto is offering folks the chance to do this year with Behind the Garden Gate.
For the third year in a row, Spoleto has teamed up with the Charleston Horticultural Society (CHS) to open the gates of 16 gardens on the Holy City peninsula over the course of two weekends. Behind the Garden Gate is also part of the Garden Conservancy's national Open Days program.
"We are lucky enough to have two founding CHS members who are also on the board of the national Garden Conservancy: Ben Lenhardt and Patti McGee," says CHS executive director Kyle Barnette. "They were key in helping us approach Spoleto and Nigel (Redden, director of Spoleto) with the idea of featuring some of the most legendary gardens in Charleston for discerning Spoleto attendees. The Garden Conservancy does Open Days tours all over the country throughout the year, and they thought Charleston provided a great backdrop for a very special version of Open Days."
Each weekend will feature access to eight different gardens, some of which are new additions to the tour. "We have two brand new public gardens that we are introducing this year," Barnette says, referring to the Theodora Garden at 75 Anson St. and the Lenhardt Garden at the Gibbes Museum. Some other interesting new stops along the way will include the Col. William Rhett House and Grounds at 54 Hazel St. and the John Blake House at 58 South Battery.
Tours are self-guided — you'll receive a map and instructions along with your tickets — so you're free to roam and discover the mysteries behind the garden gates at your leisure. Docents and a few homeowners will be on hand to greet guests, answer questions, and openly discuss the intricacies of the gardens.
The May 28 tour features gardens sprinkled around the peninsula, beginning at Montague Street and Ashley Avenue before meandering to Legare, Church, Tradd, Meeting, and Anson streets. The following Saturday, you'll have a chance to discover some of the gardens of Anson, Hassell, Meeting, East Bay, and King streets, with the tour ending at 58 South Battery St.
An outgrowth of the Charleston Gardens Festivals circa 1994-1998, the CHS formed in 1999 as a much-needed local horticultural resource center. The organization offers private tours to private gardens throughout the year that are set up individually through CHS. After Spoleto, they'll also guide folks through CHS's 16th annual fall Gardens for Gardeners tour, which will focus on the gardens of Sullivan's Island.
For more information on the Charleston Horticultural Society or to check out the Behind the Garden Gate maps, go to chashortsoc.org.