garden open days: a treat for guests, an education for hosts

margaret roach teaching‘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

Logo of The Garden ConservancyI’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.

margaret at open daythe 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.

Page Dickey garden in WestchesterQ. Not as many as in August, when we had 650. Thankfully, you sent a colleague that day to help. She and I weren’t looking so good by the end of the 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.

camels at steinhartQ. I’m thinking of one Open Days garden that has more than just plants.

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.

steinhart fall open dayIn 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.

MarionBrennerGardenViewThe 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.

May 2011_Shelagh Fritz photo 023Q. You just finished another spectacular preservation project out that way, too.

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

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.

Garden view out the west windowvisit my garden and ones nearby this year

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):

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.

Categoriesradio podcasts
  1. Ginny Ballou says:

    Was a huge supporter in the early days of Open Gardens and visited many including Page Dickey’s and many on Long Island, Nantucket and the greater Boston area. I agree it’s a great way to learn! Kind of got away from it but I would love to revisit. Thanks for all your great info, Margaret!

  2. Kendra Eggleton says:

    Didn’t know about the Open Days, and have never attended but it’s thrilling to know something about it. I have visited gardens in our area of West Virginia just by asking the homeowner for permission.Thank you for your newsletter and all of the help you have provided. I am planning to attend a Master Gardner’s class in the Spring of 2015.

  3. Mary Lynn Fruit says:

    I have attended Open Day at Cleveland Botanical Garden. I also have attended the Garden Walk in Cleveland’s near west side, which consists of local residents in areas around the city opening their private gardens to the public – extremely interesting and I learned a lot!

  4. ruth says:

    My girlfriends and I had always looked forward to finding new gardens to meander through – always finding something different, new ideas, or just some familiar scent we had longed for…
    You have brought a renewed desire to continue with the adventure – thanks!

  5. Carol says:

    The open gardens days are an incredible source of landscaping and plant ideas unavailable anywhere else. While I love visiting the Steinhardt garden with its unique scope and species the gardens of humble homes and small spaces leave a lasting impact on my imagination because that’s what most of us are given with which to work.

  6. Edith Ellis says:

    I’m planning a trip with a friend this week for either July 12 or the 26 in CT for Open Days. I haven’t joined the conservancy yet, but it’s on my short list. My friend already belongs so we’ve been studying the handbook. A planned trip last year had to be cancelled so we are really looking forward to it this year.

  7. Carol F. says:

    Embarrassed to say that I have never been and that I do know about it. Thank you to all who open their gardens for the rest of us to visit. It is a tremendous amount of work becoming show worthy. The pressure would be unbearable for me, but I do agree with you Margaret, it does give you the kick in the pants that most of us need to get ready. Nothing like having company over to motivate me into dusting.

  8. Dana says:

    Every year I look forward to the Hudson Valley garden tours. Visual treats, creative ideas, and wonderful gardeners are waiting for us to enjoy….

  9. Tina Knezevic says:

    I have never attended a open garden day and would love to visit one as my passion is gardening. I just put out all my fruit trees (frost has past) outside and am so excited to plant my tomatoes and peppers in mid-May. I plan to get a pergola built so I can get some shade to relax after I garden. I love to upcycle and just purchased a vintage enamel tub that I plan to convert to a planter in my Shangri-La garden. I would love a change to win so I can visit a open garden day destination so I can learn new tips and tricks to make my garden even more spectacular! Thank you

  10. Diane Greenberg says:

    I have been visiting Garden Coservancy gardens — from NY to CA — for several years — love them! This year, my local garden club in Wading River, NY is planning a visit to some local Garden Conservancy gardens on May 10.

  11. Maggie says:

    I’ve been to lots of gardens… nothing better than to wander around someone else’s place to get ideas. We’ve done local garden tours, and have visited gardens in New York and Vermont on Open days, but I couldn’t tell you exactly which ones. YOUR garden has been on my list of places to visit… maybe, if I win, this will be the year ~fingers crossed

  12. David Withington says:

    I have attended a several Open Days tours thru the Conservancy in northern NJ. Some amazing gardens. Never enough time in May to see them all and also tend to my own garden chores/projects.


  13. tropaeolum says:

    I have not attended the Open Days. I have wanted to for 5 years but I seem to live in regions that do not have Open Day programs. It’s a 3+ hour drive to any Open Day gardens and I always convince myself that it’s too long of a trek. BUT, having said that, free tickets might just get me in the car and on a road trip north. I so badly want to see Margaret’s garden this year!

  14. Karen Kramer says:

    Attend my local open days yearly! Wouldn’t miss it. Have even made my two young nephews go with me….not exactly happy that they came all the way to Chicago from Washington State and had to go on a garden walk (rolling eyes, etc!). Boy were they mildly surprised when they actually enjoyed it! They had never seen gardens like these. My younger nephew, Ethan, really got into it after seeing these gardens and he announced to me, “wow, these people really know how to live!” Even gardens can open the eyes of young guys. Of course, we did attend Sox games and Cub games, etc., but the garden visits were right up there in fave things!

  15. Pam/Digging says:

    I just met Laura at the Open Days in Houston, the last weekend in March (tours start EARLY in the South). I attend every Open Days within driving distance. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see gardens.

  16. Kathy says:

    I attended one maybe 10 years ago here in Dutchess County and think it would be a great time to see some more gardens in this area — it is a great organization.

  17. Harriet Robinson says:

    I’ve never attended a Garden Conservency Open Day, but I have attended many garden tours an hour or so drive from my home in western Maine. My garden has been open for local charities and I have organized tours in my area to benefit McLaughlin Garden in South Paris. I love being on tour. I work so hard getting ready and find I can rest on my laurels for quite a while after as I am so up on maintenance. It is also a joy to hear accolades from visitors. I do hope to get to yours, Margaret, one of these times.

  18. Suzanne K says:

    yes, i’ve been to many of the Conservancy Open Days gardens in my area (Westchester & Putnam counties, NY), plus CT, VT, NH, NJ.

  19. jan scarlett says:

    I have not had the pleasure of attending Open Days. I have toured many garden events in the Atlanta area. Gardening is my passion and I love to get your newsletters weekly and have ordered from some of your sponsors. Thankyou!

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