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Gardens fit for a magazine

Festival of Houses & Gardens is a spring delight in Charleston, S.C.

Festival of Houses & Gardens is a spring delight in Charleston, S.C.

April 16, 2006|By Cindy Stacy

CHARLESTON, S.C.

Sure, it's spring and early blooms are peaking through the winter landscape. But want to jump-start the season and experience the motherlode of gardens?

Visit what urban aficionados and historians call "a city set in a garden" - Charleston, S.C.

For the second time in eight years, I made the 10-hour drive from Western Maryland to Charleston to be swept up in the Lowcountry's warm air, fragrant with tea olive, azaleas and Meyer lemon plants. And since exquisitely restored homes accompany city gardens fit for magazine covers, spring is gorgeous in antebellum Charleston.

Each spring, the historic port city opens up hundreds of properties for its renowned Festival of Houses & Gardens, which the Historic Charleston Foundation conducts. The festival ended April 15 this year, but it's an annual rite of spring. Charleston gardens this time of year are at their blooming season peak.

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Visitors can opt for combined historic home and garden tours or go for a garden mega dose like I did in what's called "Glorious Gardens," offered Thursdays throughout the 31-day event. The afternoon walking tour costs $45, runs from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and includes 12 gardens grouped so tourists can take a leisurely stroll through the brick-paved historic section of town in any sequence they prefer.

Dogwoods, tulips, Cherokee roses, pansies, snow drops and the biggest camellias of every imaginable color were in bloom in mid-March. In April, the blooming list adds sweet bay magnolias and all varieties of spring flowers. Add to this, stately palm trees, deciduous trees hundreds of years old and hanging baskets and window boxes on every size porch and balcony and you realize why 500 visitors buy tickets for each day's tour.

"You could raise the ticket price and still sell out," said Marty Yonas, one of the many festival volunteers who greeted guests at the circa-1772 John Fullerton House on Legare Street. "The support of Charleston homeowners for the historic foundation is just wonderful. There's a cocktail party here tomorrow night for 250 people (connected with the festival)."

Yonus also said, "This is not Williamsburg. This city is alive," in a reference to the fact the homes are occupied, have cars parked on brick driveways and sometimes, swing sets discreetly tucked inside courtyards.

In a riverfront house, built around 1837, on East Battery Street, a playhouse, built in 1903, is surrounded by trees and flowering bushes and looks exactly as it did in 1997, when Hallmark chose it for an Easter card.

All of the gardens are paired with 18th-century homes, many designed in "typical Charleston" style, Yonus said, "with the end of long piazzas facing the street to catch breezes." Many also feature elaborate wrought iron work, fancy gates and small fountains.

One garden belongs to a daughter of Emily Whaley, famous for her book, "Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden." It's one of the most photographed of Charleston's gardens, despite being only 30 feet by 110 feet. Guides point out an old kumquat tree, tea olive, dwarf mondo grass and a hidden lover's bench.

But in her book, Whaley is more specific: "Remember that a garden has to work in two directions. Your eye is directed one way as you walk in and the opposite way as you come out. The entry to my garden is formed by the front wall and doorway of my house and the back wall of my next door neighbor's house."

Charlestonians often consider their gardens another room in their home, such as the garden of the James Mitchell House, which guides described as unfolding into a series of "rooms out of doors," planted with Lowcountry indigenous plants.

For more information about the house and garden tours, call 1-843-722-3405 or visit www.historiccharleston.org to order tickets. Festival proceeds support preservation programs throughout Charleston.

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