Friday, March 6, 2009

A Guide To The World’s Best Gardens

See The World In Flowers: The Traveling Gardener’s Guide to The Best Garden Destinations


by Barbara Ramsay Orr

Gardeners have always been a genial but larcenous lot. They’ll steal your remedy for slugs, and pinch the name of the late flowering peony that you discovered last season. And gardeners who travel are even more inclined to plunder. From Carolus Clusius who ‘borrowed’ the tulip from Constantinople in 1573 and brought it home to Leiden in Holland, to the English aristocracy who toured France and Italy to copy garden designs for their new country estates, to the modern traveling gardener, a journey offers the opportunity to acquire foreign ideas that can be modified or incorporated into the domestic garden.

But the simple truth is, people who love gardens will visit them over and over again for the pure pleasure they provide, larcenous intents aside. And even if you’ve never broken a nail or calloused your hands in the dirt of a flower bed, there is a therapeutic pleasure to be found in walking through a beautiful garden. In fact, Roger S. Ulrich of Texas A&M has clinical proof that simply looking at nature can lower your blood pressure, relieve stress levels, and reduce muscle tension.

Little wonder then that garden destinations hold such wide appeal.

It isn’t necessary to leave the country to find gardens to dream about. Our domestic gardens are gems which merit a special trip for garden inspiration. The Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, for example, grew out of an old abandoned quarry site, and now comprise fifty acres of floral splendour and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario, have the world’s largest collection of lilacs on display during their May Lilac Festival.


But if you’ve sampled the homegrown horticulture, or are just in search of the exotic, maybe you’re ready for a global garden-hopping adventure.

There are many gardening-themed group tours available, but I have found that a visit to a garden is best on a self-guided tour. You have time to stop to photograph or sketch the garden elements that captivate you, without worrying about holding up the group.

What follows is a description, not exhaustive by any means, of some the best global garden sites. Any one of them could be the central focus of a gardening odyssey or a short side trip.

First, last and always, the one site every person who loves colour must visit in his lifetime is actually a whole country – Holland in the Spring. From March until mid-June, it is Eden, an abundantly flourishing spectacle of colour that defies description. Even a mundane train ride from Schiphol to Amsterdam is illuminated by the surprising fields of flowering bulbs. That’s fields, - not clumps or beds, but fields, stretching in broad and brilliant stripes for almost a mile.


The best way to appreciate the bulb fields is on a bike, where you can inhale the scents of hyacinths as you pass. One spectacular route begins in the North Sea town of Noordwijk. Here you can arrange for bicycles and do a leisurely 25 k ride through the tulip fields, ending up, about an hour later (depending on how many times you are compelled to stop to stare at the flowers) at the absolute mecca for gardeners, the Keukenhof.

Keukenhof (which means kitchen garden in Dutch) is the 70 acre garden park that is a veritable sea of spring flowers, over seven million bulbs planted in formal gardens around lakes, curving pathways and art installations. Here the best bulb growers show off their best bulbs, and the eager gardener can choose the names of tulips, narcissus, fritillaria, and muscari for fall planting. It is, quite literally, the most gorgeous display of eye candy on the planet. Promise yourself that you will see this garden in its glory, if you haven’t done so.


There is also an important Autumn Flower Bulb Market at Keukenhof , from October 18 to 20, which sells rare and treasured bulbs, outdoor furniture and period decoration. Bulbs can be purchased at Keukenhof in the spring as well, but be careful what you buy. Any bulbs that you want to take back to Canada must have a government seal or they will not be allowed in. The safest way, although more expensive, is to buy bulbs at Schiphol Airport. I bought an amaryllis bulb the size of a turnip there and had no problems with customs. I’m looking forward to a five blossom colossus for the Christmas season.

For some gardening enthusiasts, horticultural history is the fascination. The Hortus Botanicus in Leiden has a replica of Carolus Clusius’s garden, showcasing some of the earliest tulips. It is surprising to see that these first flowers, like the 400 year old Duc van Tol, are small and short in comparison to modern hybrids, and even harder to imagine that just one of these bulbs was worth the price of a house in 17th century Holland.

Hortus Bulborum, in Limmen, is an archival bulb garden started in 1928 to save varieties of tulips which were being lost. It offers a well organized open-air archive that brings to life the story of the flower. There are helpful summaries of the tulip’s history and its evolution from wildflower to treasured showpiece.

Treat yourself, while you are in Holland to a tour of some of the secret gardens of Amsterdam. Hidden behind the tall front exteriors of the canal houses, are elegant ‘hofje’, or courtyard gardens, ranging from French formal to English landscape style.


Urban Home and Garden Tours provides a walking tour of some of the best, like the 17th century Willet-Holtthuysen canal house, or the Museum Van Loon, with its enclosed formal French garden that seems like a green oasis in the middle of the city. It is not a difficult walk, and your guide will be a professional garden designer or art historian. The tour ends with a light lunch in one of the gardens. This tour is of particular interest to someone with a small urban garden. There are guaranteed to be design ideas that can be adapted to Canadian city gardens.

Oh to be in England, where gardens are elevated to an art form! In fact there is even a gardening museum. The Museum of Garden History is in the restored church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, next to Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. There is an historically accurate Knot garden, excellent displays of gardening artifacts and utensils, archival photographs, artwork and an distinguished graveyard. (Captain Bligh is buried there.) A revolving schedule of lectures is coupled with special events like the September to December exhibition, How Does Her Garden Grow?, which explores the training of professional women gardeners from the opening of the first women’s horticultural colleges at the end of the 19th century, up to the present .


Two famous English garden shows should be on every green thumb’s list, the Chelsea Flower Show and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. The Chelsea is the absolutely fabulous four-day (May 21 -24 this year) floral extravaganza that signals the unofficial start of the English summer social season. It’s probably as famous for the outrageous hats that show up every year as it is for its flowers. At 4:30 on the last day of the show, a bell rings, all the plants go on sale, and the flower show turns into bedlam. Tickets need to be booked well in advance for the Thursday and Friday public viewings as the show sells out quicklyevery year. The first two days of the show (always Tuesday and Wednesday) are open exclusively to members of the Royal Horticultural Society. You might consider joining the RHS; besides the privileged viewings at the show, you'll receive complimentary admittance to 270 of the U.K.'s most beautiful gardens, a monthly magazine, free seeds, and free gardening advice. If you’re contemplating a visit to the Chelsea, you would be wise to begin planning now to reserve your tickets for next year.

The Hampton Court Palace, once home to Henry VIII, hosts the world’s largest flower show from July 2 – 7, but the palace and its gardens are worth visiting any time in summer. You can get there from central London by rail from Waterloo Station, by underground, or by car.

And no gardener worth his salt would miss a visit to Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Vita Sackville West’s famous oeuvre, and one of the most individual and beautiful gardens in Europe. The castle had fallen into ruin when it was purchased and rescued in 1930 by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson.  The couple, both writers, bought the romantic remains, repaired the brick structures and then gradually began to create a garden between the old walls and buildings.  The rose garden, for which Sissinghurst is best known, is planted with old-fashioned species in vivid contrast with the White Garden near it.  The White Garden has often been imitated in contemporary gardens. All the blossoms, including lavender, old roses, clematis and primroses are white and much of the foliage is grey. If you have ever longed for a monochromatic garden, a visit to Sissinghurst could provide you with a valuable template.

It isn’t necessary to leave this continent to find gardens to drool over. The Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt’s country manor in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains has 75 acres of formally landscaped gardens designed by the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, plus a newly restored turn of the century conservatory designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Longwood Gardens, created by Pierre S. du Pont, is a massive garden near Wilmington, Pennsylvania, with greenhouses, fountains and over 11,000 different plants sprawling over 1000 carefully tended acres.

So, there you have it, - a bouquet of exotic gardens, to be enjoyed one by one. There are many more garden destinations, but these are some of the best.


They’ll provide you with acres of ideas to pilfer.

If You Go

Northwest/KLM Airlines has direct flights from Canada to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport daily from Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. (Tel: 1-800-225-2525); web site: or

Spring  In The Keukenhof –; web site:

Hortus Botanicus, 73 Rapenburg, Leiden, (Tel: 31-71-527-7249); open from 10 am to 6 pm every day from April 1 to Nov. 1. The rest of the year it is open only until 4 pm and is closed on Saturday; web site:

Hortus Bulborum, 23A Zuidkerkenlaan, Limmen (Tel: 31-72-511-4284) is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm from April  to May

Urban Home & Garden Tours, P.O. box 15672, 1001 ND Amsterdam, (Tel/fax: 31(0)20-6881243); Monday, Friday and Saturday from April  to June , but they can also be arranged privately. E-mail

Museum of Garden History, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB, ( TEL: (020) 7401 8865; FAX: (020) 7401 8869) Open daily 10.30am-5pm; E-mail:

Chelsea Flower Show, (Ticket Hotline: +44-171-344-4343

Sissinghurst Castle Garden, (Tel: 01580 712850) Open 13.00-18.30 Tues - Fri, 10.00 - 17.00 Sat.& Sun, Apr. to mid Oct.

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show , July; In the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey. Ticket hotline 0870 906 3791; web site:

Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C, open seven days a week, 363 days a year, closed on
Thanksgiving and Christmas Days. ( 1-800-624-1575 (toll free) or 828-225-1333); web site:

Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, (Tel. 610-388-1000)

Web site:

© Barbara Ramsay Orr,

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