I’ve traveled cross-country from Arizona to Indiana and back multiple times over the years and each time the goal is to find a different way to explore. If your travels find you driving through the heart of this country, Powell Gardens or Wichita in Kansas are excellent stops. In Illinois, Allerton Park or the Champaign Prairie Walk are great for stretching your legs. If you take a southern route don’t miss both the Dallas and & Ft. Worth Gardens in Texas, or in Missouri the Botanical Garden in St. Louis. However, I would propose there is no prettier mid-point stop in a drive across the continental US than Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha Nebraska. Located along the Missouri River where the soil is rich and fertile, gardeners have worked magic in 20 thematic spaces.
This month begins the ninth year of A Traveling Gardener, wandering, wondering, noticing. . . and I want to thank all of my readers who have been encouraging, interested, and appreciative of my garden stories. I hope you have been inspired to visit more gardens when you travel. I went into my archives and found the first story of exploring the world through gardens. My enthusiasm has only increased as I travel to these wonderful places. I am sharing that original article with you and including update resources for finding gardens all over the world.
The road trip has long held a certain mystique in the stories of summer travels. Driving across the US is a narrative of many movies, novels and personal nostalgia. You might see a corn palace in South Dakota, the largest ball of twine in Cawker, KS, or if you are really lucky a community point of pride in Lincoln, Nebraska, their Sunken Garden. This garden was built by the local community employing men in need of work in the early 1930’s. The land once used by children for sledding in the winter and for a garbage dump in the summer was donated by two local families for the city project. A natural low spot was shaped into a terraced amphitheater designed for trees, shrubs and thousands of plants. It has generated admiration from the surrounding communities. When it opened it created such a response to its beauty that communities nearby Lincoln sent representatives to view the garden and to obtain plant lists so local gardeners could attempt to replicate some of the beauty in their own gardens. The setting is a sunken 1.5 acre lot at the corner of 27th & Capital Parkway. Visitors walk down from street level into a network of paths winding past beds of flowers, and ponds with waterfalls. The design of the garden is changed each year based on a theme chosen to direct the plantings. “Garden themes have included Tropicalismo, Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, Hachimaki – a stylized Japanese headband, ‘Power of the Peacock’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Solar Flair’.” (Lincoln Parks & Recreation) From the theme to the design layout this is a composition of plants intended to paint a picture. The plants are chosen to thrive in the Nebraska summer heat and rain. The summer I visited the inspiration was a symphonic orchestration. The design represented the four movements of a classical symphony, the fast allegro, the slow largo, the minute medium paced and returning to allegro. The results were a rhythmic spacing of plants placed to move the viewer emotionally and physically as you walk from bed to bed. On a cool, overcast August morning I walked into a symphony of intense colors. Rhythmic plantings of chartreuse, silver, and purple foliage with blooms in shades of pink, burgundy, and white filled the hillside beds. There are a large number of tropical plants, such as cannas, bananas, and elephant ear which can handle the wet soil in the bowl shape of the garden. Begonias, sweet potato vines petunias, dusty miller, vinca, lantana and coleus all are chosen to complete the color palette. Several mothers strolled through with their children. Sheer joy was on their little faces as they ran from flower to flower sticking their noses into blooms to smell the fragrance, then rushing to the lily ponds full of koi, bending over to look eye to eye at the gold fish. Everything was exciting in this beautiful place. A busy damsel fly elicited a shriek of surprise as it flew among the papyrus, lotus, lilies and horsetail reeds. A large group of sorority sisters posed for group photos, their colorful clothes complementing the flowers. The garden is the site of hundreds of photos for seniors, family reunions, weddings and happy travelers every year. Gardens bring people together. It struck me that in the center of the country a community made a commitment to create beauty simply for all people to enjoy. It is a statement for public good in a world which seems so continually conflicted and angry. The garden is managed by the City of Lincoln Parks and Recreation department but it relies on passionate community of gardeners to volunteer for a series of work sessions to keep the garden beautiful. In mid-May there is the “Wake up the Beds” event. Here the work involves turning the soil, adding amendments and summer planting. The event draws as many as 125 volunteers of all ages to help plant the 30,000 annuals. Many volunteers are Master Gardeners and others just budding gardeners. The excitement of creating such beauty is not limited to this one day as the gardeners return throughout the season to see how their plants are doing. There is ownership and pride in what has been created. Garden Gab is a weekly Tuesday and Thursday meet up to touch up and spruce up the plants during the growing season. The city garden staff provide gardening lessons the volunteers can apply in their own flower beds. The first Saturday of November is the “Put the Beds to Bed” event and the spent annuals are pulled, beds composted and planting of bulbs for the spring. The garden season ends and winter arrives, yet the promise of spring brings a display of favorites with tulips and daffodils. This is an outstandingly beautiful garden. Driving cross country shows us a beautiful landscape of great variety. Finding gardens along the way is the best possible road trip.
In all my wandering through beautiful gardens I never expected to see a row of military tanks landscaped with potted plants. A collection of 11 army tanks ranging from a 1917 WWI vehicle to the Abrahams tank of Desert Storm line up as if ready for inspection. The big guns now silent, sit under the shade of large oak trees. In Catigny Park, 30 miles west of Chicago, there is just such a scene. It startled me. It made me stop, sit down and think about military equipment in a beautiful garden. But then the profit of travel and exploring gardens is learning and here I had much to learn.
When the lottery jackpot grows large we are entertained by stories of speculation as to how a lucky winner might spend the prize. Well, what would a gardener with a passion for beauty and nature do with unlimited funds? Robert Allerton, born in 1893, won the lottery in a sense as he was the only heir to a great fortune accumulated by his father Samuel. “Samuel Allerton amassed more than 80,000 acres of farmland across the Midwest. The elder Allerton was a founding principal of the First National Bank of Chicago, and held prominent leadership positions in five major stockyards, including the Union Stockyards of Chicago.” (Allerton Park website) Robert worked tirelessly to spend the vast fortune that he inherited. His constant effort produced two incredible gardens and major donations to both the Chicago Art Institute (6600 items) and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
In our globally connected world it is hard to distinguish our garden seasons. Roses, lilies, and tulips show up in markets and bouquets every week. Asparagus and blueberries are available all year. Peony season seems an exception from this sense of timelessness. Peony season is spring and on my calendar it is May. Peony bushes were a part of my childhood landscape in Indiana. Since 1957 the state flower of Indiana is the Peony, or Paeonia so their popularity was notable. The bushes formed a line around our home and were planted right in the lawn. This meant much grumbling by my sister and I about pulling the grass out of the bushes late in the season. Initially though in the spring the grass was still short and the anticipation of their blooms was still quite pleasant. Peony season meant warmer temperatures. The temperature and the peony buds brought out the black ants. The ants hungry for the nectar surrounding the buds crawl up and down the stems. It is an often told myth that ants help the buds open but science says this isn’t so. Still the ants had to be removed from the flowers before we could bring them into the house for a bouquet for our dinner table. We would dunk the blooms into a bucket of water and wait for the ants to float off the petals.
Bright & Shiny
This time of year Christmas trees decorated with lights and ornaments are showing up all around the town. If you decorate a tree with traditional glass ornaments in red, gold, or silver you will see the beauty surrounding you reflected in their shiny surface. Stories of glass ball ornaments trace back to the 1800’s in Germany, though the origin of glass balls has been documented back to the 1300’s. Venetian glass blowers began creating colorful spheres as gazing balls to reflect the light and the view of gardens. The fragile and colorful balls were a sign of wealth and status used to accessorize the gardens of kings. King Ludwig II, King of Bavaria during the 1800’s, adorned his palace, Herrenchiemsee, his replica of Versailles, with these gazing balls. Could there be a connection?
Winter is a long season in the middle of the country. When the limits of age restrict your range of activity to a small circle of travel, winter can be especially long. With that thought in mind my sister and I arrived at our Mom’s garden to plant a little magic for the spring. The end of the summer growing season requires putting the garden away. Various garden decorations need to be carried inside to protect them from the freezing and thawing that occurs. Favorite flower pots, a garden angel, a gazing ball, and other pretty things are carried inside to store away. A few plants are carried to the basement in hopes they can winter over to be returned to the garden in the spring. Some times they survive, other years it is so cold even the basement shelter can’t protect them.
October in Indiana may just be the best season of the year in that part of the country. The corn and beans are ready to harvest. The leaves are turning, the temperature dropping, the pumpkins in plentiful supply. The air is crisp, the heater kicks on as the evening comes. The dogs coats are growing longer to keep them warm in the winter. The fall season is so beautiful; there are apples, cider, harvest of the last tomatoes, soup on the stove. The great joy of returning to my childhood home for another precious visit.