Monday, February 23, 2009

A Gardener’s Delight: The Continental Guide to Classic Gardens and Festivals

A Gardener’s Delight: The Continental Guide to Classic Gardens and Festivals

The thing about gardens is that their charm never fades. Even in the thick of winter, the minimalist outlines of branches against a grey sky have the power to entrance. But Spring, for my money, is the most intoxicating time to visit the classic gardens of North America, and every one of them will captivate the receptive visitor. Happily there are hundreds of truly exceptional gardens and flower festivals to visit, and the only difficulty is finding the one (or two or three…) that will best fulfill our need for a ‘green fix’.

Memory, as Proust explored so eloquently in In Search Of Lost Time, is a potent force. Think back to where you spent the first six years of your life and the memories you unearth will tell you what kind of garden you will most want to visit. Julie Moir Messervy, author of The Inward Garden, calls these our spatial memories – memories of the favourite places in our childhood, the times when we were happy. Search your memory for gardens that you find comforting- the lilacs that you smelled every Spring outside your childhood home, the pink roses that your grandmother grew, split rail fences or the orchards that you played in. Revisiting these memories through travels to the legendary gardens of Canada and the United States can provide a thread to past happiness, supply solace in a time of much unrest, and just plain feed the spirit that is hungry for beauty. It can also provide you with new ideas and inspiration to bring back to your own garden.

If tulips, daffodils, irises and fragrant lilacs are your special ‘spatial memory’, then one of the best places to visit is Canada’s most prestigious garden, and one of the world’s largest, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario. It includes five gardens and four nature sanctuaries on 2,700 acres of land, linked by shuttle bus and open all year. The gardens are home to the world’s largest collection of lilacs, and nearly two acres of roses. Thirty kilometres of trails weave through the nature sanctuaries and marshland, including Cootes Paradise, one of North America’s largest wetland restoration projects.

One of the RBG’s most popular events is their annual plant sale. It’s an opportunity to buy some rare and unique plants, grown by the botanical garden’s volunteers, although you may have to be a dedicated gardener to truly appreciate it. Last Spring I stood in a long line-up in chilly rain to find my treasures – a Greek oregano that has since taken over the herb garden, and a fabulous pear-shaped miniature yellow tomato that bore fruit all summer, tasted sweet and wonderful, and looked spectacular as a décor note on a plate. The fine thing about this sale is the pleasure of anticipation – everything is expectation, and after our brutal winters, picturing how a Song of Norway Iris will bloom in the garden is a gardener’s delight.

The chances are that the person who is tending the table with the campanulas also grew them. Whatever advice you need – sun? shade? keep dry or water frequently? – is given by an expert. The sale runs in late April or early May (check the website.)

The Lilac Festival at the RBG is dazzling. It is at its best from mid to late May, has over 800 varieties of the fragrant shrubs, and you can have a guided tour, listen to some jazz and Celtic music, or enjoy a picnic at the bottom of the Lilac Dell.

The RBG also has Red-Hot Jazz and Cool Blues every Wednesday evening during the summer in the Rose Garden, and Paddling Through Paradise, a guided canoe trip through the marshlands of Cootes Paradise.

Ottawa bursts into bloom with the Canadian Tulip Festival fin May. Ever since Holland thanked Canada for giving sanctuary to Princess Juliana and her family during the second world war with a gift of tulips, the capital city has produced a stunning floral spectacle each Spring. The Dutch Royal family still sends 10,000 bulbs each year, and there is estimated to be over three million tulips in the gardens around Capital Hill. The festival celebrates the tulip during eleven days of flower displays, concerts featuring stars like Chantal Kreviazuk and the Guess Who, a Tulip Ball, with a display of gowns made by designers from flowers and fabric, and parades. There is a tulipass that gives you entrance to all the displays.

Mosaiculture International, from June to October in the Old Port of Montreal, is a different kind of horticultural festival. It has its roots in the embroidered flower beds of the 16th and 17th Centuries and is a synthesis of several art forms. Carefully chosen plants and flowers are used to create motifs, images and sculptures. This is horticultural art, and the works are all very different but spectacular. For example, in past exhibitions at Mosaiculture, there was a reproduction of a Van Gogh painting, a massive snowy owl, a unicorn, a totem pole, and the waves of the sea, all created from plants. It’s a very different spin on flower arranging, and makes for a unique garden experience.

If you are a gardener with an interest in history, the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens in Nova Scotia will hold particular appeal. The historic gardens showcase several different periods in Nova Scotian horticultural development. There are several themed gardens, like La Maison Acadienne et Potager which shows an early French settler's dwelling, and the Governor's Garden which is reminiscent of the period following 1710, while the Victorian Garden reflects the prosperous days of 19th century shipbuilding. The themed gardens are linked by paths through other display areas including several plant collections, the largest being the Rose Collection with more than 230 cultivars in their historical context.

Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island is another classic that merits a visit. In 1904, Jennie Butchart began to beautify a worked-out quarry site left behind from her husband's cement company and almost a hundred years later, the gardens she planted are still a favourite destination for flower lovers. Every evening from June 15 through to September 15, the gardens are lit by thousands of lights in dozens of hues. It is one of the largest underground wiring installations of its kind in North America.

The Blue Poppy Restaurant in the gardens is worth a visit in early May. By then, the tulips, rhododendrons, azaleas, Siberian wallflowers and forget-me-nots will supply both scent and colour in the gardens. Think about Mother's Day. If your mother is a gardener, a walk through Butchart Gardens and a gourmet lunch would be the perfect gift.

If you like your gardens stately, visit Royal Road’s Hatley Park, the sprawling Edwardian estate, about 15 kilometres west of Victoria. Built by a wealthy coal baron, and once considered the finest residence in Canada, the property was purchased from the Dunsmuir family by the Canadian military for use as a college, then by the government who created Royal Roads University in 1995. The house was declared a National Historic Site, and the gardens have been restored and enlarged.

If you prefer something more intimate, consider the Gabriola Home and Garden tour in June. Gabriola Island is a temperate and pastoral island of the coast of British Columbia, accessible by ferry from Nanaimo. This tour is a casual self-guided exploration of island homes and their beautiful coastal gardens that will give you an idea of what life is like on this ‘Isle of the Arts’.

Plants do not recognize boundaries (my Greek oregano certainly doesn’t) and the traveler who wants to see the harmonious side of American life has a plethora of gardens and festivals to visit in the United States.

New Hampshire has a festival in honour of my favourite Spring garden flower, the gorgeously showy Lupine. The Fields of Lupine Festival in early June, is a regional event celebrating the blossoming of this flower that grows wild in the State. The communities of Franconia, Easton, Sugar Hill, Bethlehem, Twin Mountain, and Bretton Woods combine to showcase the vast fields of lupines. Participants will fly the Lupine Festival flag, and events will include historic inn and garden tours, workshops, art exhibits and concerts. Local greenhouses and businesses will be offering Lupine plants and seeds for visitors to start their own Lupine fields. The Lupine Tour Book includes tour admissions, a map of local Lupine fields, and a listing of events.

The Newport Flower Show is held annually at Rosecliff, one of Newport, Rhode Island’s most elegant Gilded Age mansions, in late June. Last year’s show celebrated the majestic and historic trees that beautify Rhode Island’s cities and towns, with a special emphasis on caring for them. Rosecliff’s reception rooms will be the elegant backdrop for judging the flower design classes, with more than 80 vendors in the shoppers’ marketplace.

The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve was established to protect and perpetuate native wildflowers, particularly the California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica, the state flower. Seven miles of trails, including a paved section for wheelchair access, wind gently through the wildflower fields. Whether you enjoy expansive fields of wildflowers or the close-up study of a single flower, this is the place to visit.

There is no garden more classic than a Gertrude Jekyll garden and there is only one that was designed by her in North America, the Glebe House Museum and The Gertrude Jekyll Garden, in Woodbury, Connecticut. The museum is housed in a 1750 farmhouse set in the picturesque Litchfield Hills. In 1926, the famed English horticultural designer and writer was commissioned to plan an "old fashioned" garden to enhance the newly created museum. Gertrude Jekyll had a profound influence on modern garden design and is widely considered the greatest gardener of the 20th century. Although a small garden, when compared with the 400 designs she completed in England and on the Continent, the Glebe House garden includes 600 feet of classic English mixed borders and foundation plantings, a planted stone terrace and an intimate rose garden.
If your penchant is for impressively imposing gardens, the US has numerous possibilities. The Biltmore Estate in North Carolina celebrates Spring with its annual Festival of Flowers, featuring all the gardens in full bloom, and inside, the architectural grandeur of the house is accented with cut flowers and greenery. Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens presents its Acres of Spring celebration and the 600-foot-long Flower Garden Walk. The walk’s design is defined by four main colors: blue, pink, red, and white. Within each of these borders is a range of related hues, so that the garden progresses from cool blues, lavenders, purples, and pinks to warm reds, yellows, and oranges, then ends in creams and whites. Maymont Gardens in Richmond, Virginia, is an unusually complete example of a Gilded Age estate. The vast gardens, with expansive lawns are interspersed by gazeboes, statuary, and meandering walkways.

And lastly, a garden for the activist. Seattle’s Tilth is an organic gardening organization that has been one of the leaders in using gardening to foster a philosophical position that advocates organic community gardening as a healing solution for urban problems. Their gardens and the programs they have designed for children and urban gardeners should provide a comforting inspiration to any gardener. Their credo states, “We are working to make life-enhancing organic gardening methods the norm. We seek to expand opportunities for living well while using the earth's resources more lightly and to create opportunities for diverse people to work together in practical ways that nurture community.”

I’ll second that.

Well, there you have it, a quick romp through some, though by no means all, of the gardens and festivals that await the intrepid traveler with a green thumb.

Think about this: Charles Lewis points out in his book, Green Nature/ Human Nature that haemoglobin, the critical factor in our blood, is only slightly different chemically from chlorophyll, the lifeblood of plants. How then can anyone doubt that a harmonious relationship with green things has power to heal our modern maladies of the spirit?

We should all spend more time in our gardens.

©Barbara Ramsay Orr

If You Go

Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington, ON; (905) 527-1158;

Canadian Tulip Festival, Ottawa; Tulip Hotline: (613) 567-4447;

Mosaiculture International, Montreal ; (514) 868-2003;

Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens , 441 St. George Street, Annapolis Royal, N S
(902) 532-7018 ; www.,

The Butchart Gardens, 800 Benvenuto Blvd.,Brentwood Bay Victoria, BC; (604) 652-4422;

Victoria Flower and Garden Show, Royal Roads; (250) 391-2600
Gabriola Island House and Garden Tour; (250) 247-9935Email:;

The Fields of Lupine Festival, New Hampshire, (603) 823-5661 or
Edible Flowers – The Exquisite Cuisine of Day Lilies, Hancock, New Hampshire, 603-525-4728

Newport Flower Show, Newport Rhode Island;, (401) 847-1000 or;

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve;( 661) 724-1180

Glebe House Museum and The Gertrude Jekyll Garden, Woodbury CT; (203) 263-2855;

Biltmore Estate, North Carolina;1- 800-624-1575;

Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens ; (610) 388-1000;

Maymont Gardens, Richmond, Virginia; (804) 358-7166;

Seattle’s Tilth Gardens;

Good Books for the Independent Traveling Gardener:

Great Gardens to Visit
by Patricia Singer, (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $28.95)
If you enjoy visiting gardens, this is an indispensable guidebook to more than 300 private, public and historic gardens that are open to visitors, some only by appointment. It covers Southern Ontario as far north as Huntsville and Ottawa, and is perfect for designing a self-guided tour, either for a day or longer, of special Ontario gardens.

Or, to read on the drive:

The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, The tale of John Laroche's improbable scheme to plunder and eventually clone the ghost orchid from a Florida state nature preserve with stories about the history of orchid cultivation, the Seminoles, and the peculiar nature of the greenhouse culture in Florida.

Harvest of Murder, by Ann Ripley: A dog-walking professor friend of sleuth and PBS-TV garden show host Louise Eldridge (The Garden Tour Affair) regales her with tales of his younger days in the Brazilian jungles. Just before his murder, however, he tells her of a good health-and-longevity plant he discovered .

1 comment:

Treasures By Brenda said...

Nicely done page on gardens in Canada. I used to go regularly (once a month, or more) to the Butchart Gardens. Now I live in Ottawa and I am anxious for spring and the tulip festival. I have written a page about the tulip festival at The Canadian Tulip Festival.