Gardens are my happy place, a refuge from the news, traffic, noise, and security checks. I embrace the blooms, the design, the human touch on a patch of the planet. It is a piece of heaven right under my feet.
This year we visited the East Coast in May when the Garden Clubs of Virginia open public and private gardens all over the state for a ten day period. This annual event occurs every Spring and if you love gardens be sure to include it in your travel plans. We went to the Mediterranean in July, and when your goal is to visit as many gardens as possible out of doors, I would recommend you consider traveling in any month other than July. It’s hot even under a shady tree. Still, Italy, Greece, Spain, (including Spanish Morocco), Albania, and Monaco have much to offer under the bright blue sky.
There is such varied beauty in plants, garden styles, and geographic conditions that naming a favorite is futile. These are the most memorable moments from the past year, there is the garden and there is a story from the garden.
Oatlands Plantation, Virginia
This garden was my first stop on the 156th annual Garden Clubs of Virginia garden tour, a 10-day event coordinated all over the state by individual gardens clubs highlighting the public and private gardens in their region. This historical site and garden is complete with a mansion, old brick walls, long staircases leading into the garden, and a smokehouse. There is a historical patina to these pathways that reminds me of romantic novels, of Scarlett walking in the garden surrounded by suitors in Gone With the Wind. I enjoyed the walk in the garden.
Virginia has good soil, so everything seems to thrive there. Gardens grew food as well as beauty. In the early history of our country, successful farming was the means of physical and economic survival, so crops of cotton, tobacco, hops, and rice made life possible.
This preserves the look of grandeur where life in the mansion was made possible by slavery. I struggled with the history as I walked out of the garden.
University of Virginia, Charlottesville
This campus is known as one of the most beautiful in the world. Virginia is the land of Thomas Jefferson, the farmer, the intensely curious gardener, and a political force behind the founding of our country. The UVA remains one of his greatest achievements. Wandering about on this campus was indeed a significant moment, the mission of the university remains “Discussion Collaboration and Enlightenment.”
Jefferson’s Academical Village plan set the homes of the faculty intermixed with the apartments of the students. The fields of study: languages, mathematics, history, philosophy, and sciences were physically linked by a great lawn and the Rotunda, (the library) at the end. The garden spaces are defined by Jefferson’s serpentine walls, designed to create micro-climates which would absorb the heat of the sun more efficiently than straight walls.
The design allowed for the vegetable plots and frost tender plants like pomegranates and figs to flourish encouraging the agrarian life. While the gardening efforts are not as prominent today as in the formative years of the university, the walls still stand as well as the classical architecture Jefferson so admired, both visual reminders of the significance of this great institution. I visited here in May and was so inspired by it all then in August torch-carrying white nationalists marched on the campus.
Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, NJ
J. Seward Johnson, a non-conventional heir of the Johnson & Johnson drug empire became an artist of lifelike sculptures. Seward believed everyone could enjoy art, especially contemporary art if they just had an opportunity to experience it. He transformed the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds into a 42-acre sculpture park with over 270 installations.
Seward’s work is featured but many other contemporary artists work is included. The art world found much to criticize about Johnson’s work, yet there is a uniqueness which cannot be denied.
Walking the grounds filled with sculpture is intensified with the history of the place as “Fairs were held intermittently in Trenton Township since 1745 when King George II granted a royal charter allowing them for the purpose of buying and selling livestock and other merchandise.” Grounds for Sculpture
National Arboretum, Washington DC
Since 1927 the National Arboretum’s mission to combine science and beauty for the study of flowers, shrubs, and trees operating under the Department of Agriculture. Located in NE Washington, DC, it is 446 acres of green oasis in a densely populated area of the country. A visit here removes you from the politics and the traffic of the area. There are formal gardens, herbariums, bonsai, and grand trees which host nesting Bald Eagles in the Spring.
The most thrilling site of the arboretum is the 22 Corinthian Capitol columns sited on a knoll of the Ellipse Meadow. The columns were constructed in the early 1800’s from Virginia sandstone to hold the Capitol Building dome. There is quite a story of how they ended up here. The impact of these columns standing tall on the rise is beautiful and thought provoking. The Greeks influenced the Romans and the Romans influenced the western world in language, politics, philosophy, education, and architecture. Corinthian columns a symbol of classical Greek architecture, from the country where the ideas of democracy began, stand peacefully while the tumult of our political year plays out nearby. The irony was not lost on me.
Longwood Gardens, Kennet Square, PA
Philadelphia is the garden capital of the US and Longwood Gardens is one of the crown jewels. Serendipitously on my second visit to this grand garden, the spring bloom of purple and white wisteria was in its full glory. Tendrils of blossoms cascade from the arbor, the upright shrubs frame the views in every direction. The only response is complete awe in the beauty and a very physical attempt to capture the beauty in photographs.
As I framed view after view I shared my delight with another woman doing the same thing. I exclaimed my happiness that during my last visit to Longwood it was just as beautiful. She replied, “I’ve lived 20 minutes from here for the last 30 years and this is the first time I have ever seen it in bloom.” I live in Arizona, nearly 2000 miles away.
Athens National Botanic Garden, Greece
In this intensely populated city full of history, and plagued by financial distress, there is the National Botanic Garden. The pathways wind through stands of grand trees, dusty and dry, they appear to be left on their own to survive. This green space is well loved by the local residents.
There are few flower beds but the balloon seller provides a burst of color. A castaway stone Doric capitol serves as a photo prop for children’s portraits.
You can walk on sections of ancient mosaic floors. A pediment engraved with “Caesar” lay on the ground surrounded by grass.
This country, who set the course of western civilization, is struggling.
St Pau Hospital Campus, Barcelona, Spain
Hospital de la Santa Creu/St Pau dates back to the 15th century. The grounds of the St Pau Hospital opened in 1930 incorporating “the latest innovations in technology, architecture, and medicine” as stipulated by will of banker Pau Gill i Serra in 1896.
The art nouveau hospital is composed of 10 stand-alone pavilions surrounded by gardens with interconnected underground tunnels. This campus served the city of Barcelona for 80 years recognizing the importance of natural light, open green space, and sunlight in treating their patients. The architecture incorporated elements of nature and emphasized beauty.
The idea that in 1930 medicine embraced sunlight and gardens as a matter of health inspires me. Have you looked out a hospital window recently?
The city of gondolas, water taxies, and canals for streets doesn’t bring thoughts of gardens, trees, and parks to mind. I went looking for signs of gardens. The first gardeners revealed themselves in their window boxes. There were pots by the doors, and cascades of blooms falling from the balconies.
Away from St. Mark’s busy and famous square I found the first park, and then pathways with trees lining the walkway. There were small patios on the ground level and above, rooftop gardens with pots of trees and umbrellas to shade the tables. There are gardeners there, the ground is precious, the fresh water is pumped in from the mainland and the rising sea level threatens the very existence of the place, but Venetians love flowers.
Villa Melzi Garden, Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy
Just being able to say this location makes me think I speak Italian. Lake Como is as beautiful as the movies have led me to believe. Exploring this garden, I climbed to the top of the ridge behind the mansion where I had an unspoiled view of Lake Como.
I don’t keep this a secret, so I will say it again, visiting gardens in some of the busiest tourist areas can be a serene and nearly private experience in the most beautiful parts of the world. This was just such an experience.
Hortense Miller Garden, Laguna Beach, CA,
I believe I would have liked Hortense Miller. Reading her book, the garden writings of Hortense Miller, I find myself nodding in agreement and laughing at matching garden experiences. I enjoy the scientific, historical, and literary references she includes along with her garden updates.
I share an equally vivid imprinting experience as a five-year-old as when she discovered thousands of dandelion blooms behind the fence of an abandoned front yard, I discovered daffodils in the same way. Her experience guided her garden fantasies her entire life. In 1959 she built a house on 2 1/2 acres of steep canyon hillside near Laguna Beach, CA.
Finally, at age 50, she could make her garden. Her piece of ground gave her an ocean view, a terrain of scrub bush, and wildlife for neighbors. She learned to compromise her visions of profuse blooms with the reality of a dry climate and the soil that came with it. For the next 25 years, she designed her garden “to please one person who liked plants.” Today the City of Laguna works with the Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden Foundation to maintain this garden. Docents provide tours and insights into the life of this self-taught artist, trained science teacher, and world traveler.
In December of 1979, a wildfire burned Boat Canyon and raced toward the house and garden of Hortense. The house and much of the garden survived. Two months after the fire the canyon received 16 1/2” of rain. Undeterred she continued gardening, observing the transformation of the landscape. Her essays record the rebirth of the hillside over the following years. I visited this garden in November of 2017, and the surrounding hillside of Boat Canyon look dry and dead from the current drought. In December wide swaths of CA hillsides began burning. I cannot imagine how anyone hopes to fight and contain wildfires that race along the steep hillsides of CA.
I go to gardens to find the best view of the world. I find design, art, and plants. But I always find more to the story, a sense of place, a piece of history and reflection of the culture of the time. All of these gardens were remarkable in their own right, but the stories connect to our world today. Gardeners know the importance of sustainability, weather, climate, and that a sense of place and a sense of peace are needed in life. All the gardens in the world are at risk if we don’t prioritize these things.
A related travel note:
Rome is hot and crowded in July. There are so many extraordinary things to see you can find yourself standing in a plaza not knowing where to go. Yet if you look closely at what is before you there is likely to be a small stand pipe fountain one of 2500 “Nasoni” (na-soh-nay) or big nose in reference to the curved water spout protruding from the three foot tall fountain.
The Ancient Romans realized water was essential for the life of the citizens and through their engineering legacy of bringing mountain stream water down to city these fountains continue to this day to provide ice cold, clean water available to residents and visitors alike. No plastic overpriced water bottles problem here.
You don’t want to drink from the Trevi fountain or the fountain of the Four Rivers, but you will want to find your way to see them. Spring 2017 was the driest in 60 years in Rome. In August city officials considered turning off the fountains due to the drought, although they found another source of water for the present.