‘HOW DID YOU LEARN to garden?” People ask me that all the time. At first I learned from books, and from old-style seed catalogs, and then from mentors. And then I started to learn from people who visited my garden. No kidding. From total strangers. More on that—and the program called Garden Conservancy Open Days–plus a chance to win tickets to visit private gardens this year yourself, and details on how to maybe open yours.
win tickets for open days
I’VE GOT SETS OF TICKETS and also some national directories for the 2014 Open Days season to give away. All you have to do to enter to win a book of tickets and a directory is comment at the bottom of the page in the comments box, saying whether you’ve ever attended a garden Open Day—whether with the Conservancy or a local group in your area, and where that was. I’ll draw three winners after entries close at midnight Tuesday, April 29. Good luck to all. You can even use the tickets for one of my four 2014 open dates–details at the bottom of the page on that.
About 18 years ago, I began opening my place to the national garden-visiting program of the Garden Conservancy called Open Days. Its director, Laura Palmer, was my latest radio guest—and we talked about where around the country you can visit hundreds of private gardens, and also how you can decide to share your garden, too.
The reason I say I started learning as a result from strangers who visit: I notice someone across the yard looking at something, or using their camera, and I think: “What are they looking at? There’s nothing over in that spot!”
No matter how I try to direct people, or tell them how to move through the place and what to look at, they just don’t see the garden the way I do–and as a result, I have a lot of “aha’s” from their visits, plus their impending arrival keeps me true to a strict cleanup and prep schedule each spring. Having visitors will definitely improve your garden skills…and you can get involved (or at least come visit hundreds of private American gardens), as Laura and I discussed in the latest podcast.
the q&a on garden visiting, with laura palmer
Q. First can you give us the numbers, Laura, and a little background.
A. This is our 20th season, and over the years we’ve opened about 3,000 gardens in about 30 different states—not all at the same time, of course. This year we’re in 22 states.
We’ve had over a million visitors so far.
We started in our own backyard, regionally speaking—in New York and Connecticut–in 1995, with 110 private gardens. Now each year we average over 300 gardens.
Q. And these are not gardens that are public, typically—correct?
A. These are all private gardens, and most of them you couldn’t visit otherwise.
Q. So 20 years, and a million-plus visitors.
A. Yes—and it feels like we welcomed them all at your garden last year. [Laughter]
Q. We did—and you rescued me, Laura, on a rainy day last May [photo above, me in my apron between downpours], when you saw me taking refuge on my back porch, looking like a lost wet dog—and I guess you thought, “OK, we’re losing Margaret!” [laughter] And you plopped your stuff down and announced you were sticking around for support.
A. Yes—I said, “I have a Power Bar in my camera case, so I’m going to stay,” and I did. I love being at the sign-in table welcoming people to gardens. We’re rain or shine with Open Days, and I think gardens look beautiful in the rain–the colors really stand out. You welcomed a lot of people that day.
So how many gardens have you visited, do you think, Laura?
A. I keep saying I will make a count. My record in a single day is 10—all in Connecticut, from one corner of the state to another. Especially in the Northeast [that’s Page Dickey’s garden in Westchester County, New York, above], you can visit gardens all day almost every weekend if you want to in garden season.
Q. What are some of the other “hubs” of Open Days visiting?
A. We’re in dozens of states each year, but some areas with a lot of gardens besides the Northeast include the San Francisco area; the Chicago area (and now nearby Wisconsin is beginning to develop a program); Raleigh-Durham; around Philadelphia, and many other places—and we are always looking to expand.
Q. So how do new Open Days gardens and areas come to be—how can people get involved? I remember I was invited to join all those years ago, by friends who were already on tour.
A. You can self-nominate your garden, and we come around and visit—just give us a call or an email, and include some photos if you can. We’ll get there or send one of our regional representatives. We have 75 of them around the country, who scope out gardens for us.
Q. Can gardens in areas where there are no other Open Days yet also get involved?
A. We’d love to talk to people about that, too. We like to have about six or more gardens near one another, to give people a good day of garden visiting. We have handbooks about what’s involved to get a new area going—so again, they can call or email and we can get them started.
Q. What’s the range of Open Days gardens, in size and scope?
A. There are some gardens that I don’t want to leave, that I can’t possibly see all in one day—vast acreage, landscapes with these amazing views and vistas. And then there are other efforts, small backyards—gardens on the main line in Philadelphia, for instance, tiny yards, but one in particular was just chock full of hundreds and hundreds of varieties of plants.
I love those plant collectors who just have to have one of everything—and then just astonishingly they manage to make it all look so great.
A. The Steinhart garden in Mount Kisco, New York, has a menagerie of animals, for instance—so people bring their children. It’s introducing kids to gardening by bringing them there to see the camels [above] and the zonkeys and the monkeys and so on. I love that.
In early November they have a Japanese maple grove [photo above] that’s ablaze in color. That garden has introduced so many people to gardening, and to the Open Days program—we’re fortunate to have them participate. And Open Days is the only opportunity to see it.
Q. One of the first Garden Conservancy gardens I ever saw was the Ruth Bancroft garden outside San Francisco. It was like this sculpture park—but the sculptures were alive, all succulents and such.
A. Ruth Bancroft’s garden was what inspired Frank Cabot to start the Garden Conservancy, in fact. He and his wife, Anne, were visiting it, and realized Ruth did not have a plan for that garden when she could no longer take care of it. (And by the way: She is still involved, in her 100’s, which tells you how good gardening is for you.)
We also have Henriette Suhr, in Mount Kisco, New York, at Rocky Hills, who is nearly 100 years old.
These ladies are just amazing, and very active in what is happening in those gardens.
The Bancroft garden [photo above by Marion Brenner] was our first preservation project of the Garden Conservancy. We helped it become a public garden, a non-profit, and is also part of our Open Days still, but as a public garden.
A. Yes, the gardens at Alcatraz Island. It has such a rich garden history: the prisoners, and the guards and their families maintained gardens there. We worked with the Parks Department to restore it the last 10 years. [See a before and after photo gallery on the Alcatraz website, or more photos on the Conservancy site. Photo above by Shelagh Fritz.]
how to find private gardens to visit on open days
- Browse the online national schedule, which you can sort by state, county, etc., and is arranged by date through the visiting season
- Sign up for email reminders for a particular area, to learn what gardens are open when near you or where you’re headed
- Get a copy of the national Open Days directory
- Buy discounted admission ticket books
how to inquire about opening your garden
INTERESTED in starting an open day program in your area, or adding your garden to a nearby one? Contact the Open Days office of Garden Conservancy for help.
All my open days are on Saturdays, from 10-4, and include a daylong plant sale by Broken Arrow Nursery. Get details and directions on the Open Days site, along with information about other gardens in Columbia, Dutchess and nearby counties that are also open at the same time.
Guest lectures happen at three of the four days I am open this year, too (buy tickets for the talks in advance):
- May 10: Lee Reich lecture on Weed-Less Gardening
- June 7: Carol Gracie on Eastern spring wildflowers
- August 16: Larry Weaner on native design and making meadows
- September 20: No lecture, just plant sale and open garden
Again: No ticket needed for garden (donate at the garden to benefit the Garden Conservancy) but do preregister for lectures.
prefer the podcast?
LAURA PALMER and I talked about all this and more on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The April 21, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.