Near Colonial Lake in Charleston’s historic district is a driveway that leads to a mysterious wooden door. From the sidewalk you get the feeling that the door was put there to hold something in. Tropical leaves poke out from behind it. The booted trunks of palmetto trees rise just beyond it. There’s activity back there; you can sense it. But what?
To sate our curiosity, landscape designer Arron Diedrich offered to take us on a tour of this intriguing backyard. He and his firm, Carolina Landscape, design and install high-end gardens for homes across the Lowcountry. As a landscape designer, Diedrich’s responsibility is to suss out a client’s vision and create a landscape that captures their unique sense of beauty. This work takes patience, but the results are worth it. Just look at the house on Rutledge Avenue.
Diedrich rests a hand on the mysterious door’s wrought-iron window. “You can peer in,” he says, “but you can’t really see what’s on the other side. It could be a pool. It could be a lawn. You don’t know. All you know is something’s back there, something magical.”
He twists the knob and pushes the door forward. We’re awestruck. It’s a jungle. Palmettos cluster the walkway. Ferns spill around our feet. Windmill palms, sasanquas and ligustrum line a gravel pathway, which flows into lush vegetation. Between all the plants is a curved brick walkway that ascends to a bluestone patio—an oasis among the wild.
Diedrich says that the owners of this Victorian home had asked Carolina Landscape to fit a wilderness into the confines of their small downtown lot. They wanted seclusion within the city, so Carolina Landscape closed off the backyard and constructed a gravel footpath that bends into a dense thicket. Walking through, you get the feeling you’re lost in a jungle. Diedrich notes how the ligustrum along the path are trimmed high to create an overhang. When they bloom in the spring you walk through a tunnel of flowers. Through the tunnel an exit appears. The path opens into a large back lawn with a view of the house. All around are sago palms, maples, elephant ears and azaleas. The arrangement of plants feels like free-form jazz—chaotic, full and with its own internal logic.
This yard is just one of many wonders Carolina Landscape has created over the years. The company has been in business for 55 years, and they’ve built a body of work that incorporates every gardening style a customer could desire. Last year the firm remodeled a downtown French Quarter garden in the traditional Charleston mode. For a pair of modern art lovers on James Island, it created a sculptural fence piece to go alongside striking architectural elements. And Carolina Landscape recently completed a naturalistic shade garden under majestic live oaks for a home on a beautiful marsh-front setting.
Carolina Landscape’s design elements often include masonry, carpentry, fountains and lighting, as well as irrigation, to accompany the sod and plants. This work is done in-house with only occasional help from outside contractors. Whereas other landscape professionals specialize in either design or installation, Carolina Landscape is a complete design-build firm. Each project is managed inhouse from start to finish, which ensures that every detail is executed precisely and efficiently. The way Diedrich talks, you would think they had no other choice, but the details are just too important for his team to pass off to someone else.
The Rutledge yard is a perfect case in point. Each element subtly complements the whole. The gate opens to a brick walk that leads to a raised patio that overlooks the garden. Standing at the edge of the overlook, it feels like we’ve left the city. The only noise we hear is the babbling of a nearby fountain. Leaves, branches and flowers crash all around us. You can tell an artist has touched this yard. It’s remarkable!
Jeramy Baker is a freelance writer living in Charleston. Read more at jeramybaker.com.