There's an art form that Charlestonians overlook on a daily basis. It won't be found in a gallery or on a stage, nor is it the beautiful architecture that creates the historic street-scapes. No, instead it's found tucked away, hidden behind the gates of private residences of which lucky passersby catch quick glimpses. These gardens work with texture, colors, and dimensions much like paintings do, or even stage productions.
"When you walk into a garden, it's a sensory sort of experience, as art is too. You go to the theater audibly and visually, and you go into an art gallery visually. You go into a garden, and it's just about every sense," says Kyle Barnette, the executive director of the Charleston Horticultural Society. "You can taste, well in some cases — I wouldn't recommend it and not in someone else's garden. You can smell it. You can look at it. You can touch it. All of that is sensory appeal, which goes right back to art." Even the different fountains act as a musical accompaniment to the green spaces.
And there's also an art to visiting a garden. "One must take ample time to drink in each element and its relation to the garden as a whole as well as to the surrounding landscape," Garden Conservancy founder Francis Cabot says in the afterword of his book The Greater Perfection: The Story of the Gardens at Les Quartre Vents. "Emotions and sensuality are what a garden is all about."
Cabot goes on to compare visiting a garden to painting a picture, which "absorbs all your interest and attention" but also allows you to find "unexpected rewards in the continuous changes within the picture."
The Charleston Horticultural Society pairs with the Garden Conservancy's National Open Days Program and Spoleto USA to host Behind the Garden Gate on two separate dates. On May 24, garden guests can view nine different homes all on the peninsula, and on May 31, viewers can explore eight homes, five on the peninsula and three in the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant. And each garden is different. Visitors can see a maze at 54 King St. or escape to an Italian villa with a stop by 54 Montagu St. Meanwhile, you can visit the past at 55 Church St., where there's a reproduction of a 19th-century garden, or you can stroll through the city's oldest garden at 64 South Battery.
But what makes the tour different — besides being part of Spoleto — is the involvement of the homeowners. "Since it's spread out you don't have this mass of people in one congested area. We encourage the homeowners to be there, as opposed to the other tours, where they're just gone, disappeared into thin air or upstairs on the third floor. But we encourage them to be there because they are all gardeners," says Susan McLeod Epstein, tours manager for the Charleston Horticultural Society. "And if they're not active, like out there digging every day, they at least know what's out there in their gardens. And they can instruct people, tweak it on their own. They may not be out there with a shovel, but they're out there."
What better way to immerse yourself in the art of gardening than by speaking to the green-thumb maestros themselves?