Laid out under a formal landscape architecture plan, the gardens of Middleton Place are the oldest of their style in America.
Mirroring European garden designs, they follow precise geometric angles and curves around focal points such as statuary and vistas.
The gardens were started in 1741 by Henry Middleton after plantation founder John Williams granted 200 acres and the manor home as his daughter Mary’s dowry when she married Henry.
Walls of greenery separate garden rooms into galleries and greens. The gardens culminate along the Ashley River in a pair of ponds shaped like butterfly wings.
While established before the American Revolution, the gardens fell to disrepair after the Civil War.
It took the efforts of Heningham Smith, wife of Middleton descendant J.J. Pringle Smith, to resurrect their former glory. She began the project in 1916.
More than a century later, the transformation of the landscape to Henry Middleton’s original plans covers 65 acres of gardens amid 6,000 acres of forested landholdings.
In addition to the gardens, historic interpretation is a mainstay of Middleton Place. In the 1930s, Mrs. Smith had a noted New York architect build the interpretive stableyard complex you see today.
It was constructed out of the bricks removed from the gutted remains of the plantation home. All that remains of the original 1755 home is one wing, now a house museum.
Plan Your Visit
Location: Charleston, SC
Address: 4300 Ashley River Rd, Charleston SC
Hours: 9 AM to 5 PM daily, except Christmas eve and Christmas Day
Fee: $29 ages 14+, $10 ages 6-13. Discounts for students, military, and seniors
It’s easy to spend a few hours or an afternoon roaming the gardens of Middleton Place. Expand that to a day if you want to engage with the living history interpreters in the Stableyard, take any of the walking tours, or spend time birding along the edge of the former rice fields.
The House Museum Tour and Carriage Tour incur an additional fee, but the four guided walking tours are included in general admission.
Late winter and spring are the most popular times to visit the gardens, as that is when the extensive plantings of camellias and azaleas bloom. More than 100,000 azaleas grace the grounds.
Pets are not permitted on the grounds of Middleton Place, however. Trained service animals only.
Restrooms are located at the garden center at the front entrance, by the Reflection Pool as you enter the gardens, at the House Museum, the restaurant, and near Eliza’s House in the Stableyards.
Stop in at the Visitor Center for a map that shows the most accessible path through the gardens. Surfaces are mostly natural.
From US 17 in Charleston, follow SR 61 (Ashley River Rd) north for 12.6 miles. The entrance is on the right at Middleton Place Rd. Follow this back to the parking area at the visitor center.
Inside the Gardens
The Reflection Pool
Just past the Visitor Center, this shallow pool is your entryway into Middleton Place. It defines the upper edge of the gardens, which flow from here downhill to the Ashley River.
The Formal Gardens
Following the pathway to the right around the Reflection Pool leads around it into what feels like the edge of a garden maze, its walls defined by neatly trimmed camellias.
Long corridors known as allees stretch ahead and to the left. Walking along them, they surprise with sudden openings where steps lead to other levels.
Some of the garden rooms and the ends of the allees have gleaming white statuary as their focal points. A large crepe myrtle dominates one of the rooms.
Descending down towards the marshes and the Ashley River, the gardens open up to reveal pathways leading like spokes away from a sundial that occupies a point with a sweeping panorama of the water.
Centuries old, the Middleton Oak still stood here on our last visit, a live oak battered by hurricanes over the ages and carefully pruned and supported.
From this spot, a walk down to the river shoreline affords excellent birding, with the comings and goings of wading birds like tricolored herons and great egrets.
The Romantic Gardens
With a different feel than the Formal Gardens, these are the flowing spaces encountered when heading left around the Reflection Pool, or by circling around the Azalea Pool from the Formal Gardens.
Established in the 1940s, a grove of younger cultivars of camellias are set beneath the forest canopy, adjoining a cypress-lined swamp.
A grove of bamboo provides entry to the Woods Walk, a nature trail through native woodland habitats where trillium decorates the forest floor in spring.
The East Gardens
In the opposite direction from the Romantic Gardens are the East Gardens.
Step down through the Octagon Sunken Garden to walk into the gardens behind the ruins of the original plantation home.
Along the Green Walks behind it are azaleas and magnolias and camellias, including one very precious plant. Planted in 1786, the “Reine des Fleurs” is thought to be the nation’s oldest camellia.
With more than a thousand cultivars, camellias are an important part of the historic collection at Middleton Place.
Henry Middleton’s father Arthur was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and a friend of botanist André Michaux, who is said to have gifted this and several other camellias to the family.
As the East Gardens descend, the high terrace above the Butterfly Lakes commands an outstanding view of their shape.
It’s here that geese and swans roam across the grass. Don’t get too close to them or other wildlife!
When I was eight years old, one of the black swans grabbed my sister Susan’s coat and tried to drag her off. Her wailing alerted our parents to chase it away.
The terraces lead like giant steps down to the lakes. Walking out to the end of the peninsula formed by this landscaping, you can peer in the restored rice mill.
Rice Mill Pond
Continue away from the river uphill along the shores of the Rice Mill Pond. The longer walk up the south shore reveals a hillside covered in azaleas in a patchwork of colorful blooms each spring.
Along the shorter walk up the north shore, pop into the Spring House to see how milk jugs were kept cool before refrigeration. A chapel occupies the upper floor.
A bridge crosses the Rice Mill Pond – a stream dammed to provide water power to the mill – to where the path leads by one of several slave burial sites on the plantation.
This area defines the southwest edge of the gardens. Downhill is the restaurant, which is open for lunch.
The House Museum can be toured if you purchased a ticket for a specific tour time during the day.
Uphill, the Stableyards are the center of activity at Middleton Place. To learn about the plantation history of Middleton Place, plan to explore there after touring the gardens.
Ride in a horse-drawn carriage on a tour circling the lesser-visited parts of the plantation property.
Availability may vary, so tickets for this tour are only sold at the visitor center the day you arrive.
Middleton Place House Museum
While the main house built in the early 1700s remains in ruins, one of the two dependencies added to the plantation home by Henry Middleton dates to 1755.
This building contained the plantation office on the ground floor and bedrooms for visitors on the upper floor.
After the manor was burned by the Union Army during the Civil War, the family restored this remaining structure to become their residence.
On the tour, docents introduce you to the Middleton family and aspects of their daily lives. Portraits of four generations of Middletons hang in the main room.
Period furnishings and family heirlooms grace each of the rooms, including a Charleston rice bed and paintings acquired during grand tours of Europe.
Our delight, of course, was the library. What was salvaged from the burning of the mansion is priceless.
Their library includes first editions of Mark Catesby’s natural history of the region, and a folio of plates from Quadrupeds of North America by John James Audubon.
At the Stableyards, meet the living historians who keep the past alive as they demonstrate crafts like candle-dipping, pottery making, carpentry, and keeping the horses shoed.
The Belgian draft horses are always eager for attention, but they are not the only heritage breeds found around the stables.
Learn the history of livestock on the plantation while admiring the sheep, goats, and hogs.
Sitting just beyond the Stableyards, Eliza’s House was moved here from the current location of the restaurant after the passing of Eliza Leach.
Born in 1891, Eliza lived in the house for much of her life. She worked in the gardens for 40 years, sweeping walkways and handing out brochures.
Inside the home, period artifacts illustrating the day-to-day of freed slaves of the Middletons show the contrast to how the Middletons lived in their home.
Documentation points to Ned and Chloe and their family being the first occupants of the home.
Ned had been a field supervisor until the Emancipation Proclamation, and is thought to have overseen the plantation after being freed. Chloe and her daughter did washing and ironing for the Middletons.
The home is furnished simply, with cast-off items from the Middletons and homemade quilts, brooms, and a hand-hewn mortar and pestle.
Eliza’s House also serves to honor the 2,612 enslaved people who worked Middleton Plantation, each of them finally documented in modern times as a part of seven generations who lived on this land.
Middleton Place Restaurant
Offering fresh Lowcountry dishes including shrimp and grits, pork belly, and fried chicken, accompanied by regional favorites like Carolina gold rice, collard greens, and beets, the Middleton Place Restaurant is open for lunch (to gardens visitors and inn guests) and dinner (to the public) daily.
The Garden Market & Nursery and the Museum Shop flank the entrance to Middleton Place. No admission fee is required to visit either of them.
The Outdoor Center adjoining the parking area has exhibits about habitats and wildlife on the property, and is where to stop if you’d like to rent a kayak.
The Inn at Middleton Place
Built in harmony with its surrounding natural environment, the Inn at Middleton Place sits along the Ashley River, its rooms boasting floor-to-ceiling windows with views of nature.
A stay here includes admission to the gardens. Pet friendly rooms as well as bicycle and kayak rentals available. The entrance is separate from the gardens entrance but is also off Ashley River Rd.
Walk through Middleton Place with us by viewing our photographs from our visit. Click to open the gallery.