When my wife, Jenny, and I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, after pursuing careers in New York City for twelve years, the thought of warm winters and real wood-smoked barbecue and the prospect of getting a hunting dog (we had our hearts set on a Boykin spaniel) seemed too good to be true. Then my wife found a downtown carriage house for rent that was built in 1785 and had a postage-stamp courtyard garden. She called from the garden, and before she was halfway through her description, I said, “Rent it!”
After moving in, Jenny and I were quickly reminded that those warm winters meant nothing ever really stopped growing, and we learned to stay vigilant with the trimmers. The lush creeping fig that covered the old brick walls raced across any surface it had not yet conquered. Overnight, it seemed, the tendrils could practically lash the front gate closed. The loquat tree also made aggressive moves to take over our space, but its branches did bear tremendous fruit. (Jenny experimented with all types of loquat recipes, eventually settling on a cobbler that paired perfectly with vanilla ice cream.) We now fully understood that gardening wasn’t a passive hobby, but mostly we just enjoyed ourselves. I have a picture from our first week in the house. It’s a Saturday morning and we’re sitting in the garden celebrating with mimosas. In the background I can see the camellias in full bloom, and though they’re not visible in the frame I know the fragrant rosemary bush is anchoring the corner and the delicate maidenhair fern is lining the walkway.
We were truly living the dream. And for a few months I walked the neighborhood as if in a dream, peering through the gates at the regal gardens shaded in spots by two-hundred-year-old live oaks and majestic magnolias lifting their blossoms high into the sky. When the Boykin joined our world, I’d wake at dawn when we weren’t training for the field, and we’d cover large swaths of downtown, watching the seasons take hold of the gardens as caring hands nudged them into full display. I told friends, if there’s a more beautiful place in the country to walk your dog, I’m certainly not aware of it. Eventually, when children entered our lives, we outgrew the carriage house and moved just outside of the Holy City proper. But when it came time to choose a location for the cover of G&G’s garden issue, I knew we needed look no farther than downtown Charleston.
What we found, with the help of the Historic Charleston Foundation, was a private half-acre garden owned by Betsy and Gene Johnson. When the Johnsons bought the home in the mid-nineties, the garden wasn’t much to look at. Some of it had even been turned into a parking lot. In the process of bringing it back, Gene admits to making just about every mistake possible, like “planting things that would be happier growing in Alaska than in Charleston.” But by focusing on one small area at a time, he eventually created eight garden rooms connected by gravel paths. And in doing so brought even more beauty to downtown. “I hate to think about gardens that are lost,” he says. “And they’re lost all the time. Through this effort I felt like I gave something back to Charleston.”