Charleston, N.C. — For some midwinter dreamers, spring means the budding chestnut trees along Parisian boulevards or the sudden appearance of baseball scores from the Florida Grapefruit League. Both are cheering images for me, but can they equal the vernal explosion of flowers in Charleston, S.C., a city of endless and unmatched gardens?
Charleston blooms in all seasons, but the coming of azaleas in mid-March is perhaps its most splendid moment. This is when the low-country heat begins to rise and residents of the wondrously preserved antebellum city come out to putter in their yards, which they call gardens and pronounce ''gyahdens.''
If there is an official arrival of spring, it's during the Festival of Houses from mid-March to mid-April when a number of historic residences and gardens are open for afternnon and candlelight tours (write Historic Charleston Foundation, 51 Meeting Street, 29401.) For most of the year the priceless blocks between Broad Street and The Battery can only be appreciated from the sidewalk, and the little gardens must be glimpsed through the filigree of wrought-iron fences. So the chance to break through the rather well-sealed society is enticing.
My only question, as I made a candlelight tour one fragrant March evening, concerned the whereabouts of the residents of the houses while we interlopers trooped in and out of their parlors. Were they out to dinner, or hiding upstairs? Then in the Cleland House, at 58 Tradd Street, I got a partial answer. As our guide described a portrait above the mantel, a little boy in a bathrobe rushed through the room and disappeared up the staircase like a fleeing ghost.
Charleston's houses are not necessarily palatial, and they are tightly bunched, so their gardens are either narrow side plots or hidden refuges in back. If it's size you want, and accessibility, there are three gardens outside the city that can enfold the visitor in their floral variety for a day each: Middleton, Magnolia, and Cypress.
Middleton and Magnolia lie within a few miles of each other just west of town along the Ashley River. Middleton is the more formal of the two, begun 1741 by Henry Middleton, a wealthy rice and indigo planter. Rice was a kind of Carolina gold in that era, and plantations flourished all along the Ashley until the devastating hurricane of 1911. On a Sunday in late March, a high breeze blew down across Middleton's terraced lawns and fluttered the Spanish moss hanging from gnarled oaks.
Charles Duell, a Middleton descendant, has not only improved the gardens and butterfly-shaped lakes but mae an attraction of early American crafts in the stable yard and has turned the main house into an appealing museum. I particularlyliked the rice bed, a four-poster with each post carved in the form of rice sheaves.
Just down the road is Magnolia Gardens, a plantation of a different color. One a a Magnolia woman told me as we strolled along winding paths of azaleas: ''Middleton is a landscaper's dream. Ours is a horticulturist's dream.'' She said Magnolia has 250 varities of azaleas and untold camelias, which erupt like huge ivory roses from mid-November all the way into March. Magnolias, those steamy symbols of the old South, come forth in July.
Another compelling sight is Drayton Hall, hard by Magnolia Gardnes, said to be the finest example of Georgian Palladian architecture in the country. The oak-shaded house, never modernized with central heating, electric lighting, or plumbing but lately spruced up, gives a vivid picture of early plantation life along the Ashley.
Charleston's other outlying garden, Cypress, lies 25 miles north of the city on 160 acres of lakes and lagoons. On a sunlit day the gardens are as pretty as a black lacquer Japanese box. Azaleas and camellias are in profusion, and the giant cypresses add a primeval flavor. Cypress Gardens is open only from Feb. 15 to the end of April. The way to get to the heart of things is to hire a boat and drift across the still, black waters.
Gardens and houses are not the only springtime attraction of Charleston and the Carolina low country. I wouldn't leave without tramping the long, flat Atlantic beaches, free of winter's flotsam and tantalizing warm underfoot. Sullivans Island, just beyond the Cooper River Bridge, had lost much of its shoreline to the seas in past years, but recently the flat, broad, dune-backed beach I remember from the visits long ago has returned. Sullivans is simply ''the island'' to Charlestonains, many of whom keep slightly sagging beach houses with screened porches half hidden behind canopies of wisteria.
There are no hotels, no gold courses, no tennis camps -- just a grocery, a cafe, a gas station; and at the far end of the island, the remains of old Ft. Moultrie, where Edgar Allen Poe was stationed in the 1820s.
Another flavorful beach, badly eroded but hopeful of a comeback, is Folly Beach, a dozen miles each of the city. Of course there are more cultivated beaches in the region, such as the Kiawah and Isle of Palms, two all-purpose resort islands. But it doesn't matter where you tramp the beach or, for that matter, where you smell the flowers, as long as you're in Carolina in the springtime.