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Garden Tours

Visit a Garden, Bring Home Inspiration

Quilt

Each summer the staff creates a new design for the "quilt garden" at the North Carolina Arboretum.

Himalayan blue poppy

These Himalayan poppies were in full bloom at Reford Gardens in Grand-Métis, Quebec — a rare opportunity to see these challenging-to-grow flowers.

Raised beds

Small-space gardens like this one offer creative ideas for combining vegetables and flowers in compact plantings.

Planter

This photo from a garden tour sparked an idea for my own garden using an elevated planter.

By Suzanne DeJohn

If there's anything more enjoyable than spending time in my garden, it's spending time visiting someone else's. Whether it's a casual stroll through a public garden or a guided tour through a private landscape, I always come away refreshed and inspired. It's like falling in love all over again.

Sometimes, I just want to spend time in the gardens to bask in the beauty. Other times, I'm actively looking for ideas to copy in my own landscape. That's one of the great things about gardening: It's OK to plagiarize. Make it a goal to visit one garden this year — you won't be disappointed.

Bring a Camera and Notepad

When you're touring a garden, you're bound to spot a plant grouping or color combination that calls out to you. Or you may discover an imaginative solution to a landscape challenge — as steep slope, a shady corner, a wet spot — similar to one in your own backyard. A snapshot and a few jotted notes will jog your memory when you get home.

I especially love to look at garden structures and accents. A carefully placed arbor, a simple fence, a lovely bench, or a piece of garden art can make the difference between a pleasant garden and one that wows you. Make note of those "aha" moments.

Visiting Public Gardens

Public gardens are some of our country's best and most underutilized resources. From sprawling rural estates to compact urban oases, they're inviting places for both gardeners and non-gardeners to relax, recharge and renew. And they're as varied as the people who visit them. Some have a specific plant focus, such as native plants or wildflowers; others highlight a particular ecosystem, such as desert or alpine.

As beautiful as they are, public gardens offer more than just strolls through expertly maintained landscapes. Some gardens offer workshops and children's programs; others host concerts and art exhibits. Becoming a member of a public garden is one of the best bargains around. For less than the price of a month's worth of cable TV you can visit as often as you like and enjoy other benefits, such as discounts on classes and plants. And when you're a member, you're more likely to visit a garden repeatedly throughout the year. That way, you can note what's in bloom through the seasons and get ideas for adding year-round interest to your own garden.

Best of all, by becoming a member of a public garden you're also helping the group further its mission, which often has an education and/or conservation component. The American Public Gardens Association offers a search tool to help you find a public garden in your region. Use the advanced search to look for special types of gardens, such as native plants, endangered species or historical plantings. You can also find gardens to visit when you're traveling.

Finding Tours of Private Gardens

Touring private gardens gives you a sneak peek into a fellow gardener's vision and passion. Because they're usually smaller than public gardens, they offer bite-sized nuggets of inspiration. Sure, a public garden with 2,000 tulips is dazzling, but I can't replicate that at home. A lovely vignette made up of a few shrubs, perennials and a bench at the end of a short path? Now that's something I can work with.

Local garden clubs and plant societies often host tours of their members' gardens, giving you an opportunity to visit gardens in your community and chat with the gardeners. Scan your town newspaper's calendar listing, consult with your county cooperative extension or a Master Gardener group, or ask the staff at your local garden center to learn about tours in your area.

Each year, the nonprofit Garden Conservancy organizes the Open Days Program, a series of self-guided tours of private gardens around the country. More than 300 private gardens now participate in the program, opening their doors to the public just one day each year. Consult the conservancy's Open Days Directory to find a schedule of gardens near you.

Whether they're public or private, tiny or sprawling, gardens and the gardeners that tend them offer opportunities for inspiration and learning that goes beyond anything we can find in a book or online. Nothing can take the place of seeing, smelling, touching — experiencing plants in their real-life garden settings.

Vermonter Suzanne DeJohn has been gardening and writing about gardening for more than 20 years.

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