10 Gardens That Inspire Us

THE NUMBER OF OUTSTANDING AMERICAN GARDENS that have been profiled in these pages since we began publishing in 1904 is anyone’s guess; certainly it must be in the thousands. So the decision to single out 10 gardens to celebrate in our anniversary issue begs an immediate question: What’s so special about these 10, aside from the fact that all are gardens you can visit? We don’t claim that they’re the best gardens in North America—there are too many fine public gardens on this continent to pick a mere 10 as “best.” Some of our choices are grand, others are relatively modest; some were conceived as public gardens, others were originally private [and one still is). The common thread running through them all is simply that they practice a kind of gardening that we instinctively respond to—first, because they put plants at center stage; second, because they exemplify the principles of good design. But most of all because they are the creations of passionate men and women for whom gardening is as necessary as breathing. It is this element of passion that gets our pulse racing, that inspires us.–Tom Fischer

Lotusland, Santa Barbara, California

Go in search of a garden that defines the words “passionate gardener” and you will find Ganna Walska’s Lotusland. In 1941 the Polishborn opera singer began her transformation into the high priestess of exotic garden-making when she purchased the former estate of renowned California nurseryman Kinton Stevens.

In this finely woven maze of garden rooms you will find botanical collections of the highest order, all professionally managed to exemplary ecological standards. But Lotusland is much more than a collection of collections—it represents one obsessed gardener’s vision of paradise.

If you wander into the green theater, where Madame Walska is said to have given impromptu performances, you will find it peopled with fantastical grotesques, worthy of an 18th-century European palace. Another discovery might be the abalone-edged pool with giant clam-shell fountains. The signature garden is the blue garden. Entering past the guardian blue agaves, you are in a world of blue light created by Chilean wine palms, blue Atlas cedars, Mexican blue palms, and great drifts of blue fescue and Senecio mandraliscae. The effect is enhanced by paths lined with pieces of tumbled glass that Madame Walska obtained from a factory owned by the Arrowhead Water Company.

Happily for 21st-century gardeners, Madame Walska’s creation still lives, now managed by the nonprofit Lotusland Foundation, dedicated to keeping this personal paradise growing and to sharing its legacy with other avid gardeners. –Nan Blake Sinton

Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation, 695 Ashley Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93108; 805–969–9990 (reservations necessary); www.lotusland.org

Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island, Washington

A short ferry ride from Seattle, Bloedel Reserve is a quintessential Northwest nature experience. Prentice and Virginia Bloedel showed great restraint and sensitivity to the natural landscape over the many years they developed their 150-acre tract of forested waterfront property. Despite its majestic scale and variety of garden rooms, the atmosphere is naturalistic and intimate. Designed as a sanctuary for human visitors and wildlife, Bloedel Reserve is a place of repose and refuge.

Each garden within the forest is a distinct experience, from lush decay to understated formality, designed over the years by such luminaries as Thomas Church and Richard Haag. The Moss Garden is drippily primeval; next door is the Reflection Garden, where you wouldn’t be surprised to find hooded, chanting monks circling the dark, smooth waters of the rectangular pond hidden within a sleek yew hedge. There’s a Japanese garden, a bird refuge, and a shady glen bright in spring with rhododendron blooms and in autumn with over 25,000 hardy cyclamen. Reservations are limited. —Valerie Easton

Bloedel Reserve, 7571 N.E. Dolphin Drive, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110; 206–842–7631; www.bloedelreserve.org

Historic Bok Sanctuary, Lake Wales, Florida

Overlooking the town of Lake Wales and a vista of citrus groves from peninsular Florida’s highest point, Historic Bok Sanctuary is a magical place, a lush, subtropical Eden that provides shelter and sustenance to over 100 species of birds and other wildlife, and soothes and moves the human spirit. The soaring bell tower, its neo-Gothic image serenely mirrored in the reflection pool at its base, chimes out with song at intervals throughout the day, inspiring a sense of reverence and emanating an aura of romance and mystery. Restful shade gardens designed in the 1920s by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., invite quiet contemplation as they wind through a canopy of oaks, pines, and palms underplanted with ferns and seasonally colorful masses of azaleas and camellias. A three-quarter-mile nature trail leading to Window by the Pond, a unique nature observatory, and the Endangered Plant Garden, where visitors encounter some of the state’s rarest flora, elicits respectful appreciation for the natural beauty and value of central Florida’s vanishing native sandhill ecosystem. —Carol Bishop Miller

Historic Bok Sanctuary, 1151 Tower Boulevard, Lake Wales, FL 33853; 863–676–1408; www.boktower.org

Chanticleer, Wayne, Pennsylvania

Chanticleer is situated on 32 picturesque, rolling acres west of Philadelphia. It retains the intimacy of the private garden it once was, and offers a richness of plants and an audacity of design rarely seen in a public space. A series of experiences unfold as one walks through the garden. Tropical and Mediterranean influences dominate the formal courtyards that surround the two manor houses. The happy results of inspired plantsmanship overflow from every pot and bed. Jam-packed mixed borders fill what used to be a tennis court; a more naturalistic feel is evident in the woodland areas, one devoted to eastern North American natives and the other to Asian plants. Drama reigns supreme in the bold, modernistic grass and clover panels; the unique ruin garden invites introspection. A highly talented staff has made its mark on the plantings, handcrafted gates, seats, benches, bridges, and stonework. The originality of the overall design is the work of the recently departed first director of the garden, Chris Woods. The garden presents a standard of horticulture and maintenance not customary to this side of the Atlantic, yet the flair of the place is decidedly American. Sensory delight and intellectual stimulation abound at every turn. —Lauren Springer

Chanticleer, 786 Church Road, Wayne, PA 19087; 610–687–4163; www.chanticleergarden.org.

Gardenview Horticultural Park, Strongsville, Ohio

No, you won’t find grand fountains, formal allees of trees, or a stately mansion at Gardenview. What you will find is 77-year-old Henry Ross, and the remarkable flowery garden he began creating in the winter of 1949 and still tends today. Situated on a long, narrow, 16-acre plot smack in the middle of an anonymous stripmall wasteland, Gardenview is evidence of what one gardener can achieve with love, zeal, knowledge, and next to no cash. From March to May, the Spring Garden is washed with wave after wave of color; in summer, the All Season Garden grabs your attention with texturally sophisticated bedding schemes of annuals and tender perennials. Everywhere, from April through October, there are choice plants to be encountered, from the hellebores that Ross himself has bred to signature plants like Monarda ‘Gardenview Scarlet’. Ross donated Gardenview to the public in 1961, and hopes to create an endowment that will keep the gardens going after he’s gone. With luck, Gardenview will endure, but it will never have as passionate a steward as Henry Ross. —Tom Fischer

Gardenview Horticultural Park, 16711 Pearl Road, Strongsville, OH 44136; 440–238–6653; www.geocities.com/heartland/ cottage/9303/

Les Quatre Vents, La Malbaie, Quebec

Situated 90 miles north of Quebec City on the St. Lawrence river, the garden of Les Quatre Vents reflects Frank Cabot’s genius both for design and for plantsmanship. Its development has been an ambitious project in which, since 1975, he has extended the basic framework into a series of great formal and informal compositions, many of which have been inspired by other cultures and historical precedent. He and his wife, Anne, have traveled widely, not only to look at the great gardens of the world in Europe, the United States, and Japan—journeys from which they returned with inspirational architectural ideas—but also as explorers in search of new gardenworthy plants.

The 20-acre garden includes themes taken from the classical world of the Italian renaissance where all is symmetry and balance, Islamic-like enclosures where narrow water canals are enclosed by high hedges to represent the Koranic paradise, a Chinese moon bridge, a Mughal arch framing the wild countryside, a Japanese tea house, ravines and swaying rope bridges, a wildflower meadow, and an extraordinary cutting garden where massed delphiniums bring a gasp of admiration. Each new feature comes as a surprise, but Frank Cabot’s masterly vision ensures that the garden emerges triumphant as an integrated whole. —Penelope Hobhouse

For information about visiting Les Quatre Vents, telephone the Hortus Press at 845–265–2011, or e-mail hortus@highlands.com.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Madison, Wisconsin

A place of inspiration and beauty, Olbrich Botanical Gardens graces the shores of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin, and offers its guests a 16-acre showcase of the best and hardiest plants for Zones 4 and 5. The display gardens at Olbrich—from the formal, sun-drenched herb courtyard to the acres of fragrant hardy roses—show home gardeners that even under the harshest conditions, beautiful plants can be successfully grown and used in innovative designs. Whether strolling past the meadow garden, with its bright dots of color in the spring, or surveying the view from the new That pavilion, visitors are reminded of the vision Michael B. Olbrich set forth as he went about acquiring land for the future gardens: “This park above all others, with a warmth and strength of love—of love of all the working world—should hold out its arms, should invite them into itself, until its naturalness and beauty enter into their lives.”—Carleen Madigan Perkins

Olbrich Botanical Garden, 3330 Atwood Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin, 53704; 608–246–4550; www.olbrich.org

Portland Classical Chinese Garden, Portland Oregon

Encompassing a city block, the Portland Classical Chinese Garden was designed to reflect the five essential elements of Chinese garden making: buildings, stone, water, plants, and poetry. The central structure is a pavilion based on those dating from the Ming dynasty, situated on the shore of a naturalistic lake spanned by several bridges. A series of detailed mosaic walkways, each set with a different pattern of pebbles, leads from one contemplative space to the next. Hand-carved wooden screens offer veiled glimpses into intimate courtyards. Throughout the garden, an amazing array of plants native to China are arranged in artfully composed vignettes. Full-size trees and large shrubs were donated by local homeowners, giving the garden an established feeling. Chinese proverbs and poetry are inscribed throughout the garden and in the entry archway.

Seventy architects, designers, artisans, and craftsmen made the journey from Suzhou, China, to Portland to work on the project. The result is a harmonious garden where stunning architecture, exquisite detailing, and an interesting plant palette captivate the visitor. —Lucy Hardiman

Portland Classical Chinese Garden, 239 N.W. Everett Street, Portland, OR; 503–228–8131; www.portlandchinesegarden.org

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, Columbia, South Carolina

To be tucked away inside the walled garden at Riverbanks is to disappear from the world for a while, knowing that when you emerge from its embracing brick tracery you’ll feel more serene, more settled into your soul than you have in weeks. If it’s spring, the roses will be in full, flamboyant flower—not twiggy hybrid teas, but lush, overblown, old-fashioned flowers that smother you in perfume. Come summer, you’ll forget all about roses and revel in a garden gone wild with color and texture, from low-growing Iris japonica ‘Variegata’, spreading its roots among the shrub borders, to the enormous leaves of a coppiced Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’. I met golden Jasminum ‘Fiona’s Sunshine’ in this wondrous garden, and the bright orange, puffy goldfish blossoms of Gloxinia sylvestris.

As I walk the long, straight waterway that bisects the main garden, I hear whispers of paradise gardens past. But Riverbanks is looking to the future and growing beyond its original borders. While its soothing brick edifice instills serenity, the (relatively) new sweeping purple wall wrapped around the entrance courtyard makes me do a dance of sheer delight among its quirky, curious collection of monocots. Little wonder I always leave River-banks overflowing with gratitude and inspiration.—Pam Baggett

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, 500 Wildlife Parkway, Columbia, SC 29210; 803–779–8717; www.riverbanks.org

Wave Hill, Bronx, New York

Wave Hill rewrote the definition of the summer garden. But the 28-acre garden, situated at the eastern edge of the Hudson River with views across to the cliffs of the Palisades Escarpment, is without question beautiful in all seasons—the conservatory and greenhouses bright with flowers in winter, the ground carpeted with bulbs in spring, the sky aflame with the foliage of trees and shrubs in autumn. Starting in the end of June and continuing nonstop until the end of October, Wave Hill is unmatched for the richness and the complexity of its displays. From the informality of the woodland walk and the wild garden to the more formal frameworks of the flower and aquatic gardens and the pergola walk, the plantings at Wave Hill display plants in an exuberant, artistic fashion. In the heat of July and August, salvias and cannas jostle with hydrangeas and daylilies. Five-foot-tall impatiens mingle with dahlias, nicotianas, amaranths, and Verbena bonariensis aways above mosaics of lady’s-mantle and coral bells, sages and lamb’s ears and saxifrages. Even if nothing ever flowered, the garden would be captivating for the shapes and textures of the leaves, the sculptural forms of the plants themselves. But it does flower, full-bore, in a stunning display of plantsmanship and painterly design. The scale of the plantings is intimate; the beauty is out of this world. —Thomas C. Cooper

Wave Hill, 675 West 252nd Street, Bronx, NY 10471; 718–549–3200; www.wavehill.org H

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