Old Stone Ruins Set the Scene for This Secret Garden-Themed Wedding in South Carolina

chelsea john wedding couple on dirt road
Hannah Alyssa Photography

It wasn't love at first sight for Chelsea Karol and John Dodds when they met as students at Tufts University—for a while, they were just friends. "That friendship gave us a base of mutual respect and understanding before jumping into something more serious," says Chelsea. "The more hilarious story, however, is that I took John to a formal event to make someone else jealous, and we ended up having a ton of fun together." After a little more than three years of dating, John proposed during a walk in the Boston Public Garden on Thanksgiving Day, surprising Chelsea with an intimate engagement while her family's dog drooled nearby. "We spent the next hour just us in the park, talking about the next stage of our lives together," says Chelsea. "John's favorite moment is of me repeatedly telling him, 'I can't believe we are married now!' despite that fact that we were only just engaged. In my mind, I had accepted, and that meant forever!"

The couple held their wedding on Spring Island in South Carolina, where Chelsea's parents have a residence. "We have so many memories there," says Chelsea. "Experiences like these bring people together with memories that can last a lifetime, and we wanted to share ours with our guests." They created a storybook atmosphere for 290 friends and family as a nod to their shared love of literature: "We wanted an Old-World, enchanting garden wedding, so the lush green landscape and natural beauty of Spring Island, which is a nature preserve, made it an easy choice."

On April 27, 2019, the couple saw their vision come to life as they exchanged private vows before the ceremony, officially tied the knot under the island's 200-year-old oak trees, and celebrated with a Low-country menu and an evening of dancing under the stars (thanks to their open-air tent, set among the ruins of the island's original mansion). "The theme was 'Secret Garden,' which was my favorite book as a child and one of my favorite places to be in life," says Chelsea. "I can't think of a better representation of how I feel about John—a little private, a little unbelievably special and loving, a nurtured oasis."

Watch Chelsea and John's wedding video by Re-Peet Productions.

01 of 25

Golden Touch

chelsea john wedding invites and sheet music
Hannah Alyssa Photography

The couple worked with Mac & Murphy to create an invitation suite embellished with custom touches: Each invite had a hand-deckled, gold leaf edging, ensuring that no two were identical. The richly-colored envelopes were also handcrafted; the gold wax seal featured an elephant as a nod to Tufts' mascot, Jumbo. The front of the envelopes were just as personal, with hand-calligraphed addresses from Prairie and Sage and vintage fashion stamps that Chelsea chose herself.

02 of 25

In the Bag

chelsea john wedding bags with snacks, schedules, and a candle
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Guests were invited to spend the weekend on the island, where activities including horseback riding, an interactive safari tour, golf, kayaking, and a pre-ceremony pool party unfolded. Chelsea and John stocked welcome bags with treats from local companies, including personalized Candlefish candles in Chelsea's favorite garden-themed scent, Sweeteeth chocolate bars, and treats from Olde Colony Bakery—all packed in custom recycled canvas totes.

03 of 25

Just the Two of Them

chelsea john wedding bride in floral robe holding vow book
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Chelsea and John skipped a pre-ceremony first look for an even more intimate moment. "We met early in the wedding day, prior to getting into our gown and tux, and exchanged private vows on the family dock," says Chelsea. "There is so much nervous excitement and emotion during the actual ceremony—it was important for us to remember that we were making these vows to one another and no one else. We wanted to take a moment to say them without a single distraction—no cameras, no guests, no microphones, just us."

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04 of 25

A Floral Frock

chelsea john wedding dress floral overlay
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Chelsea's day job—she's the owner of Beckett Boutique in Charleston—made finding her dream wedding dress "notably harder" than she expected. "I am nerdy about fashion history and as a boutique owner I also live and breathe current fashion," she says. Her Ines Di Santo floral ball gown struck exactly the balance she wanted between old and new. "It has a gorgeous Old-World construction and shape that we just don't get to wear anymore, with beautiful detailing and a vintage-looking lace overlay," she says. "But it also felt very fresh, modern, and nontraditional. It had both drama and elegance, while being completely unexpected."

The gown also became the basis for much of the décor seen throughout the event. "My dress provided inspiration for the color palette and florals," says Chelsea. "If only I could wear that gorgeous thing more often!"

05 of 25

Coming Up Roses

chelsea john bride's wedding bouquet pastel blue and pink
Hannah Alyssa Photography

The bride's bouquet, designed by Fernwell Florals, was also a reference to her wedding dress. "I wanted a more neutral, soft palette with lots of texture to really embody our idea of Old-World romance," she says. "Many of the flowers were local varieties—they had a wildflower feel to them—which were combined with lush, pampered blooms."

06 of 25

Baby's Breath Braid

chelsea john bride's wedding braid with floral decoration
Hannah Alyssa Photography

A loose fishtail braid, woven with fresh sprigs of baby's breath, completed Chelsea's bridal look.

07 of 25

Under the Oaks

chelsea john wedding wooden ceremony chairs
Hannah Alyssa Photography

The island's double line of 200-year-old oak trees created a stunning canopy over the ceremony space, which included wooden chairs with white cushions, floral edging, and a dramatic archway draped with pale pink fabric and an oversized floral garland.

08 of 25

Draped Arch

chelsea john wedding ceremony arch on dirt road
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Chelsea's uncle officiated the service, during which John's godmother and the bride's mother read poems by Robert Burns and Chelsea's grandmother, respectively. "The goal was to make our ceremony feel as personal to us and our families as possible, while embracing the beauty and weight of our commitment to each other," says Chelsea.

09 of 25

Fan Letters

chelsea john wedding ceremony wooden fans
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Before the ceremony, guests picked up sweetgrass fans to combat the heat from the bright spring sun. Chelsea and John enlisted Dear Jane Designs to calligraph quotes from their favorite literary icons, which they tied to each fan; a fan personalized especially for Chelsea's father included the family motto, "Be bold," while one for her mother, an author, highlighted a line from one of her books.

10 of 25

On the Piano

chelsea john wedding ceremony pianist
Hannah Alyssa Photography

"Having a baby grand piano playing beautiful melodies while the birds chirped and the wind blew through the trees was pretty amazing," recalls Chelsea of the unique ceremony music.

11 of 25

Her Favorite Moment

chelsea john wedding ceremony processional
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Chelsea's father walked her down the aisle to Faulker's "Daydreaming;" this became one of her favorite moments of the day. "Everything came together in that moment," she says. "I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be in my life. When I saw John, all of my nerves immediately erased."

12 of 25

Together Forever

chelsea john wedding ceremony recessional bride and groom
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Happily married, the couple walked back up the elongated aisle—framed by hanging Spanish moss—to the cheers of their family and friends.

13 of 25

The Bagpipes

chelsea john wedding bagpipe player on dirt road
Hannah Alyssa Photography

After the ceremony, a bagpiper led guests down the oak-lined path to the cocktail hour, where the Charleston Virtuosi string quartet played the couple's favorite songs.

14 of 25

Friends and Family

chelsea john couple kissing with family and wedding party behind
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Chelsea's bridesmaids wore matching white gowns from Bella Bridesmaids, while the flower girls wore white dresses, simple sandals, and flower crowns. John accessorized his black Tom James tuxedo with a patterned bow tie from Brackish. He gifted the same one to his groomsmen—a group that included his father, Johnnie, as the best man.

15 of 25

Completely Enchanted

chelsea john wedding couple holding hands
Hannah Alyssa Photography

After more than a year of planning, Chelsea and John both describe their celebration the same way. "I would call it an enchanting, storybook garden wedding," says John. Chelsea agrees: "In life and in relationships it's wonderful to be able to create your own magic and meaning, and our wedding embodied our unique understanding of love and commitment."

16 of 25

Lounge Act

chelsea john wedding lounge with pastel tent
Hannah Alyssa Photography

During the cocktail hour, guests cooled off in shaded lounge areas and sipped the couple's custom drinks—"Beckett Bubbly," named for Chelsea's boutique, and "Jumbo Juice," named after Tufts' elephant mascot—before moving into the tent for dinner and dancing.

17 of 25

Among the Ruins

chelsea john wedding venue ruins
Hannah Alyssa Photography

For their reception, Chelsea and John worked with Veil to create an open-air structure that felt connected to the island's Old Tabby Ruins. "We wanted the space to feel open to the natural beauty of its surroundings," says Chelsea. "We kept the structural outline of a traditional tent, but we lightly draped the foundation with an airy blush fabric and kept most of the top open to the sky, with the exception of twinkle lights. The result was a space that felt grand and elegant, but didn't take away from the landscape."

18 of 25

Tunnel of Love

chelsea john wedding reception greenery and floral arches
Hannah Alyssa Photography

A line of metal arches covered in floral garlands created a sheltered tunnel for guests to walk through on their way into the tent, reinforcing the "Secret Garden" atmosphere. The newlyweds also added potted plants, trees, and other greenery around the space to continue the floral theme. "A huge shoutout to our reception florists, women on the island led by my mom's dear friend," says Chelsea. "They went above and beyond, and worked for months to make the florals something from a dream. We feel honored that they spent that much time, passion, and effort to celebrate us."

19 of 25

On the Menu

chelsea john wedding reception tables until pastel pink tent
Hannah Alyssa Photography

"In lieu of a formal sit-down meal, we had open, relaxed seating," says Chelsea. Under the tent, the couple included a variety of tables—round and rectangular, bare and covered.

20 of 25

Centerpieces in White

chelsea john pastel pink floral centerpieces
Hannah Alyssa Photography

A variety of low and high centerpieces, votive and hurricane candles, and mix-and-match chairs completed the reception's décor.

21 of 25

On the Menu

chelsea john wedding place setting white plate floral centerpiece
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Since John is the cook in the family, Chelsea left the menu to him. The result: A collection of food stations featuring fresh, local ingredients in classic Low-country cuisine, like po' boys, she crab soup, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes.

22 of 25

Sweet Stuff

chelsea john floral pastel pink and blue wedding cake
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Wedding cake artist Jim Smeal created the couple's two-tier confection of lemon cake with raspberry curd, which Chelsea describes as "light, packed with spring flavors, and oh-so delicious!" An array of cupcakes was iced to look like a variety of pastel-colored flowers, creating a bouquet of sweets for guests to pick.

23 of 25

I Love You More

chelsea john wedding first dance
Hannah Alyssa Photography

The couple chose The Beatles' "In My Life" for their first dance song—an easy decision. "John loves the Beatles with a capital 'L,'" Chelsea says. "Picking a song from them felt meaningful to us—especially since we know that it will still be a great song 20 years from now." The rest of the night included more memorable dance floor moments, including a surprise gift from Chelsea's brother-in-law, a composer: "He crafted a song about us, our dogs, and our life together and performed it on stage with the band and with my father on the trumpet!" says Chelsea. "Everyone ended up going crazy for it and it was sung joyfully all weekend."

24 of 25

A Grand Goodbye

chelsea john wedding exit in back of pickup truck
Hannah Alyssa Photography

As the sun set, TEC draped the alley of oaks that had hosted the couple's ceremony with twinkle lights that mimicked hanging Spanish moss. "After a sparkler send-off, we exited in the back of my dad's red '49 pickup truck," says Chelsea. "As the truck drove down the alley, the trees gradually illuminated as we passed. The effect was this organic and breathtaking visual that highlighted their natural beauty—it was truly magical."

25 of 25


chelsea john wedding couple under white garden archway
Hannah Alyssa Photography

Photography, Hannah Alyssa Photography

Location and catering, Spring Island

Event planning and design, Haley Horsfall of WED

Flowers, Fernwell Florals (personal, ceremony, and house florals); Spring Island Floral Group (reception florals)

Videography, Re-Peet Productions

Stationery, Mac & Murphy (invitation suite); Studio R (wedding day paper goods)

Calligraphy, Prairie and Sage (invitation suite); Dear Jane Designs (wedding day paper goods)

Cake, Wedding Cakes by Jim Smeal

Music, Charleston Virtuosi (ceremony); Bill Nuttall (bagpipes); The Bluff (reception)

Rentals, EventHaus; EventWorks; Ooh Events; Skyline Southeast; Snyder Events; La Tavola; VEIL

Bride's gown, Ines Di Santo

Bride's accessories, Model Bride Charleston (veil); Badgley Mischka (shoes)

Hair and Makeup, Madison LeCroy and Meg Workman

Bridesmaids' dresses, Bella Bridesmaids

Groom's tuxedo, Tom James

Bow ties, Brackish Bowties

Lighting and custom builds, TEC

Transportation, The Point Transportation

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