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Neal_Sanders Jun 24th, 2008 08:36 AM

One Traveler's Opinion: Visiting Gardens and Vice Versa
I’ve written from time to time about visiting gardens as a terrific means of getting to know a region of the country (or the world). A few dollars provides entry into a private world and, frequently, an opportunity to meet new people far from tourist centers. One of my cherished memories is of dropping in on a garden in Kent, one listed in the UK’s “Yellow Book” of private gardens open for charity. Despite difficulty understanding our “rather thick American accents”, my wife and I spent one the best mornings of our vacation in the company of a couple who truly cherished their garden and the opportunity to show what they had accomplished over four decades.

This past weekend, the tables were turned. My own garden in suburban Boston was open as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program. It was one of six gardens listed in Conservancy’s directory for June 21. The Conservancy’s goal is that there should never be more gardens open in a region than can be seen in a single day.

It took the better part of six weeks to get ready for the tour including, conservatively, sixty hours of weeding and edging in the last five days. Master Gardener friends pitched in to help ‘fluff’ the garden. On Saturday morning, we made a final inspection, fretting that the day lilies hadn’t opened but cheered that the first of the Coreopsis and Helianthus had bloomed bright yellow. I gave the driveway a final sweep.

At opening time – 10 a.m. – there were already two cars parked and ready to view the garden. Those two vehicles disgorged six people. By 10:15 there were fifteen people wandering the property. From that moment until 4:30 – half an hour past the nominal closing time for the tour, there was never a time when there were fewer than half a dozen people.

The rewards for opening a garden are entirely psychic. It’s an affirmation from total strangers that you have indeed created something worth looking at. The best feelings come from those who apparently know plants and compliment you on something you’ve grown or some combination of plants you’ve put together. At our home, only shrubs and perennials go in the ground. Annuals go into some twenty containers that range in size from five-gallon pots to behemoth terra cotta planters that are moved by front loaders. The arrangement of containers is an art and selecting unusual annuals to combine with one another is one of my wife’s gardening joys.

While my wife answered questions about the front of the property with its multitude of shrub beds and perennial borders, I was consigned to the rear of the property where visitors, expecting yet more flowering shrubs and colorful containers, find themselves at the edge of a rock garden than falls away steeply to a pond below the house. My job was to explain the civil engineering project that was undertaken, nine years earlier, to keep our back yard from eroding away. Seeing the comprehension dawn on people’s faces, and seeing the delight as they explored the terraces, was all the reward I needed.

I met some wonderful people over the course of the day. Most were from within a twenty-mile radius but others came from as far away as Florida, using garden tours as a way to fill out their vacation itineraries and to gain a sense of the people. Their compliments were terrific, better than Motrin for an aching back.

Having been on the other end of the tour, I now even more wholeheartedly endorse garden tours as a means of seeing the world from a different perspective. You can find a listing of other Garden Conservancy Open Days at If you’d like to see what you missed last Saturday, feel free to see the garden at and look for the “Open Day 2008” link in the left-hand navigation bar.

Cassandra Jun 24th, 2008 08:54 AM

Neal, what a great post (although I was at first trying to figure out what the vice versa of "visiting gardens" would mean: "gardening visitors"?

I've become very interested in gardens wherever I go, although I myself am a black-thumb gardener for everything but indoor gardenias, which can't be overwatered. But as the world gets nastier and uglier, gardens get more and more precious as sanctuaries for the spirit AND the senses (are your hostas fragrant?).

Bless you for opening your garden -- wish I could visit it, it looks just lovely -- the plants, the landscaping and design, all of it.

janisj Jun 24th, 2008 09:24 AM

Great post. Sounds like you have an amazing garden.

In my part of the country there are some scheduled private Home & Garden tours. Mostly "Gardens" in the Spring and mostly "Homes" in the Fall. But otherwise, not really possible to see many private gardens.

Every time I go to the UK, I get the current edition of the Yellow Book that lists all the openings in the National Gardens Scheme. It is a great way to see gardens and meet/talk w/ other gardeners.

Neal_Sanders Jun 24th, 2008 10:43 AM

Cassandra, the main goal of the Garden Conservancy is to preserve 'vanishing great' gardens. One of my favorites, and one to which they've given a large grant, is The Fells on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. Stonecrop, just north of New York City, is another that would long since have been developed but for GC's aid. And, yes, many of the hostas in the 'hosta walk' are fragrant, including a number of Fragrant Blues (a variety of hosta bred for its scent).

Janisj, I'm pleased that others view the Yellow Book as a way of seeing the UK. After a week of viewing huge gardens that were stunning but which offered little to emulate, the Yellow Book steered us to satisfying private ones from which we - frankly - stole a lot of very good ideas that we implemented Stateside. But it was meeting the owners that was the memorable part.

I'd add that the U.S. version of Open Days doesn't discriminate between profesionally designed and maintained gardens and those done by 'rank amateurs' like us. While the former tend to be more 'over the top' with waterfalls and pools, there are also some owner-planned gardens that you walk away from thinking 'where on earth do they get the time?'.

uhoh_busted Jun 24th, 2008 11:07 AM

What a great experience! I have taken the garden tour around Hillsborough, NC and been totally charmed. Many of these homes have extensive grounds that require substantial work. It is also a fabulous way to check out what plants and flowers might work in your own garden.

Of course there are a couple of formal "big" gardens here --the famous Duke Gardens -- which is, as a garden, always changing and well worth spending half a hour or half a day in. They hold Master Gardener classes, and also host a fabulous plant sale once in the Spring and once in the Fall.

owlwoman Jun 24th, 2008 11:27 AM

Neal, we love the Open Days tours sponsored by the Garden Conservatory, living in the burbs of NY, there's almost one open every weekend, it's amazing what people can do with their properties. One of our favorites is in Mt. Kisco, the Steinhardt property, it is amazing, between the landscaping and exotic animals, it's one we never miss!

Glad to hear you had a great experience, we always try to seek out the owners and give kudos where due!

Neal_Sanders Jun 24th, 2008 12:23 PM

Owlwoman, I looked up the Steinhart property and it sounds magnificent - worth a trip down to New York on its own. If you care to venture up the Taconic a ways to Cold Springs, you'll find one of the best reasons to support the Conservancy. Stonecrop has Open Days, but it is also open as a garden most days. It's prime season is late June and July. It is not to be missed.

dfnh Jun 25th, 2008 07:45 AM

I enjoyed your garden descriptions esp because we are just starting to landscape our old farmhouse. Last year was The Move and hurriedly transplanting what I could. The new owners (our son and DIL) didn't want any of the perennials. I admire your generosity in allowing the public to view your garden and in providing plants for the garden club sale. I love garden tours and try to go on one or two each summer. I even managed to go on a neighborhood garden tour of an Anchorage neighborhood on one visit to AK. Thanks for reminding me that I need to schedule a visit to the Fells. Do you have a favorite time of year for a visit?

zlaor Jun 25th, 2008 08:11 AM

Neal, great post - congradulations to you and your wife.

How about some pictures?

Neal_Sanders Jun 25th, 2008 08:38 AM

Donna, The Fells peaks twice - in mid-June (their annual plant sale was also last weekend) and then again in mid-July (for those who have no idea of what I'm writing about, go to Their incredible rock garden has been fully restored and is worth a trip any time, but the perennial borders will be in their glory from mid-July forward. Their website has a calendar or tie-in events.

Zlaor, there are photos of the garden at Look for the “Open Day 2008” link in the left-hand navigation bar which will take you to the page with the garden map and photos.

zlaor Jun 25th, 2008 08:41 AM


We just bought a house and have been working on our garden very hard.

owlwoman Jun 25th, 2008 10:01 AM

We go to Cold Spring as a "day" trip a lot, next time I'll make sure to find this garden. Thanks for the tip.

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