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Discovering Garden Gems

by Maureen Sundberg

Public and private gardens are a source of beauty and inspiration any time of year, but especially in the full bloom of summer. That’s also the time many of us travel to unfamiliar locales for graduation parties, weddings, and family reunions. During your travels, consider scheduling an excursion to a local garden.

Almost every region offers at least one garden gem – a treasured location that maybe just the locals are privy to, or perhaps it’s a well-known venue that offers something fresh with each visit. Prefer the quirky? Find an edible or rooftop garden to explore. With our electronic devices at our fingertips wherever we roam, it couldn’t be easier to locate great garden options.

Connect Through National & International Organizations

An easy way to explore new locations is to look into the options available through a national organization, whether or not you are a member.

Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA participates in the Reciprocal Admissions Program of the American Horticultural Society.

If you have a membership at a local garden, find out if they are listed as a 2017 Reciprocal Garden of the American Horticultural Society (AHS). For nearly one hundred years, AHS has been connecting people to gardens throughout North America. They partner with 300 gardens through their Reciprocal Admissions Program. Membership at one member garden allows you access, generally for free, to gardens in 48 U.S. states, District of Columbia, Canada, the Cayman Islands, and the Virgin Islands. Bonus: Some locations also offer a gift store discount when you show your membership.

The Garden Conservancy offers unique opportunities to explore private gardens in many states through its Open Days program. A garden may be open one day or several days any time from March through December. You can check the schedule by date or place, then purchase a ticket “at the door,” or buy a booklet of six tickets in advance. Tickets allow you to admission to any of the listed gardens any time during the year; you don’t need to schedule your visit in advance. And your tickets never expire. Open Days is part of the Garden Conservancy’s educational outreach. The organization, founded in 1989 to preserve and restore outstanding gardens, has helped to save or restore over 80 North American gardens.

The American Public Gardens Association advances public horticulture and the organization’s website provides a search tool that helps you find out if there is a member public garden or park wherever you visit – anywhere in the world. Narrow down your search to a particular location or zoom in on the map and explore the many offerings along your travel route.

Sign Up for a Garden Tour

Many organizations, garden clubs, and community groups offer garden tours one or two days or throughout the summer. A quick search will reveal a treasure trove of options.

Gardens featuring native plants are the focus of ELA’s Celebrating Natives Tour.

ELA offers native plant tours on June 24th and again on August 12 at locations around Massachusetts. Private property owners and public gardens allow registrants open their gardens to visitors during “Celebrating Native Plants.” Admission is free, but registration required.

Salem, MA offers a mostly self-guided tour of historic private gardens in the McIntire Historic District from July 7-9. You can join “A Stroll through the Gardens of Salem” for $20 ($18 in advance) and visit gardens from 10:00am to 4:00pm. Bonus on July 8: you can also attend a free afternoon lecture by landscape architect Christopher Patzke: Expanding Jefferson’s Vision: Warren Manning’s 1913 Master Plan for The University of Virginia.

Some tours offer more than plants.

If you are visiting the Northwest in early July, you might join an Edible Garden Tour in Seattle, WA on July 1st. Arrive at the meeting point, Kirke Park, and for $10 (kids tour for free) you get a tour map and ticket. From 10:00am to 3:00pm you can visit gardens; meet chickens, bees, and goats; and ask gardeners about their edible landscaping.

Check Parks and Gardens for Special Programs

Over the summer, you might find special garden tours and special garden events offered at local parks and gardens.

The owners of Bedrock Gardens in Lee, NH let visitors explore their property during scheduled hours on Saturdays and Sundays, May through September. Guests can explore on their own using the detailed map that’s provided or with a group if your visit coincides with one of the guided tours offered at 10:30am and 1:00pm on the third Saturday of the month. Look for special events taking place at Bedrock Gardens throughout the summer. Although there is no admission fee for the gardens, donations are accepted and appreciated.

Wilcox Park in Westerly, RI offers free 90-minute walking tours with University of Rhode Island (URI) Master Gardeners at 10:00am on fourth Saturday of the month from June through October this year. The park features three native gardens in addition to other plantings. Looking for more? URI Master Gardener volunteers showcase their private gardens on June 24 & 25. With registration, you receive guide to the 26 gardens on this year’s Gardening with the Masters tour.

Chandor Gardens is a Texas gem in Weatherford, TX near Fort Worth developed by artist Douglas Chandor. If you visit on October 22 this year for the Autumn Art Walk, you’ll find visiting artists set up throughout. Chandor is a member of Gardens for Peace Community, a non-profit that promotes gardens as places of meditation and symbols for peace.

Explore Resources Associated with Colleges and Universities

Wherever you travel, look to the nearest college or university for botanic gardens, arboretums, and demonstration gardens.

A view toward Lyman Conservatory from one of Smith College’s gardens.

You can easily spend a day walking Smith College Botanic Garden & Arboretum in Northampton, MA. The Smith College campus plan was designed by Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, and Smith’s Botanic Garden, founded in 1895, serves as a “living museum of plants native to New England and ecosystems around the world.” Start your tour at Lyman Conservatory where you can pick up maps of gardens throughout the 125-acre campus and of trees in the Level III Accredited Arboretum. Or, print out maps ahead of time and dive into the gardens. There is no fee for maps or your visit (donations accepted).

Operated by the University of Utah, Red Butte Garden and Arboretum in Salt Lake City, UT butts against the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, and managed gardens ease into numerous natural areas and miles of walking trails. If you’re traveling with youngsters, a children’s garden offers interactive fun in addition to the herb, fragrance, and other specialized gardens aimed at the adult crowd. Individuals and small groups can take advantage of complimentary tram tours, free with admission. Red Butte Gardens participates in the AHS Reciprocal Admissions Program (see above). Gardens close early on days when there is a concert or other special event; check the hours.

Between exploring the gardens and hiking nearby trails, you can spend an entire day at Red Butte Garden and Arboretum in Salt Lake City.

Consider the Non Traditional

Ground level parks and gardens are wonderful to explore, but don’t forget to look up. Although many rooftop gardens are generally off limits to visitors, if you find one, it’s worth asking if it’s open to visit. Also many cities promote their green infrastructure, particularly rain gardens.

Native plants inhabit the five-acre green roof on top of the LDS Conference Center in SLC, UT.

One expansive rooftop garden is open daily to visitors throughout the year. If you find yourself in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah with only a short time to spare, consider a visit to the green roof at the top of the LDS Conference Center. Guides offer tours of the entire building, but you can ask to go directly to the roof to see the five-acre alpine meadow. Stepped terrace planters rise along the two sides of the building from street level to the roof and are filled with native conifers and deciduous vegetation. The central roof-level garden is designed to mimic the mountain valleys along the Wasatch Range, using immense planters of aspen and conifers and a series of pools and cascading fountains. Plantings are native species that were prominent in the nineteenth century. The view alone is worth the visit.

Another less traditional option for garden exploration is green infrastructure, and Philadelphia, PA has a number of projects to explore. Several are contained in the Big Green Block, located at the intersection of Palmer and Blair Streets in the heart of Fishtown. In addition to rain gardens, porous pavement, green roofs, and other stormwater features, this hidden gem offers young visitors a “sprayground,” for water play on a hot day, and canine visitors their own park – all with water conservation as the priority.

The Green Block map points out sites of interest in the area. Photo: NKCDC

With so many choices wherever you travel, you’re sure to find a new favorite or reconnect with a familiar garden. Care to share your garden gem or favorite garden tour? Join ELA’s LinkedIn conversation and post your choice for a must-see garden.

About the Author

Maureen Sundberg has edited the ELA Newsletter since 2011, working out of her home in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. She spends spare time either in her gardens developing wildlife habitat, incorporating native plants, and fighting invasives, or traveling and looking for garden gems.


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