A secret garden rests in the heart of the city, thanks to Hurricane Hugo.
Glorious Oasis
Jets of water arch gracefully from both sides of the pool, lending elegance. Italian cypresses form stately columns.
| Credit: Allen Rokach

It was just too funny. As we were preparing to photograph this fantastic pool and garden in historic Charleston, South Carolina, Allen Rokach and I accidentally set off a very loud burglar alarm. Try as we might, we couldn't turn it off. There was nothing for us to do but calmly sit down and wait for the authorities to arrive.

Ten minutes later, a policeman showed up. When we told him we were from Southern Living and explained what we were doing, his face brightened. "Is it okay if I come in and take a look?" he asked. "I have always wanted to see this garden. Oh my gosh, it's beautiful!"

Here's to Hugo
He and the owners have a little storm named Hugo to thank for this. When that hurricane assaulted Charleston on September 21, 1989, it effectively destroyed all the large trees shading the garden, leaving the owners with a blank slate. They asked Atlanta landscape architects Hugh and Mary Palmer Dargan to design a new space that would provide privacy along with areas for entertaining and gardening. They also wanted a small greenhouse for overwintering their tropical plants, as well as a pool and gazebo to serve as the garden's focal points.

At 40 x 12 feet, the pool is a welcome respite from Charleston summers, but its primary function is aesthetic. "When the pool jets are off, the water becomes a perfect mirror of the trees and gazebo," notes the owner. "It's a wonderful effect."

Just as wonderful are the twin rows of living exclamation points known as Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens). Planted 12 years ago as 6-foot-tall trees, the columnar cypresses now tower 45 feet. "We had always admired these trees during our travels in Europe," says the owner. "We saw that we could use their shape as a screen for privacy and also as an architectural element." Viewed from the top floor of the house, the cypresses stand like soldiers at attention, capturing a vista of downtown Charleston. In addition, they buffer the masonry walls of a multistory house next door. (Italian cypresses may not do as well in the Upper South, so if you live in that region you might want to try Leyland cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii).)

The striking conifers also contribute the calming effect of motion. "When they sway in the wind, the trunks move in one direction, while the branches move in an opposing direction," observes the owner. "That's my favorite thing."

Well, maybe it's not his absolute favorite. He also loves to garden, and he takes advantage of sun and shade to grow a surprising variety of plants. "On the sunny side of the pool, I grow lantana, purslane, and things that like hot, hot sun," he says. "Twenty-five feet away on the other side, I have Lenten rose, toad lily, foamflower, and other plants that like cool shade." Fragrant plants, including winter daphne, Carolina jessamine, jasmine, tea olive, and plumeria, perfume the garden throughout the year.

Yes, this is one beautiful garden. As soon as my boss posts bail for me, I'm going to write a story about it.

"Glorious Oasis" is from the August 2003 issue of Southern Living.