I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot and visit public gardens all over the world: in North America, Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and even Australia. I don’t claim to have visited all the gardens of the world, but in more than 35 years of visits, I’ve still been able to see many of the most famous.
So, of the some 500 gardens I’ve seen (I never counted but I’m sure visited at least that many), which do I like the best? Here’s the answer!
By far my favorite, Longwood Gardens also has the benefit of being fairly accessible to me. Located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, USA, about an hour west of Philadelphia, it’s only a (long) day’s drive from my home in Quebec, Canada. For that reason, I manage to get there almost every year, sometimes twice a year.
This garden was designed by the wealthy American Pierre S. du Pont (1870–1954), owner and general manager of DuPont Industries. Rather than build a large mansion on his vast property like most of the ultra-rich of bis time (think of Winterthur and Nemours, both huge villas nearby built for other members of the du Pont family), Mr. du Pont invested all his efforts on the garden. The result is a large park of 20 outdoor gardens and 20 indoor gardens, the latter in a greenhouse complex covering 4.5 acres (1.8 ha), making it one of the largest public greenhouses in the world. The greenhouses not only include beautiful collections of plants (especially orchids), but were Mr. du Pont’s main showcase. After all, he included both the ballroom and the 10,010-pipe organ in the greenhouse complex rather than in the house.
M. du Pont was fascinated by water and included water elements in most of the gardens. As a result, there is certainly no lack of fountains at Longwood! The 5-acre (2 ha) Main Fountain Garden, recently completely renovated at a cost of $90 million US, is in a class of its own: even the water gardens at Versailles pale in comparison. And there is also an Italian Water Garden, a giant Eye of Water and a stunning waterlily display. Even the Open-Air Theater features jets of water.
There are flower beds as far as the eye can see, a vegetable garden, an orchard, trial gardens and also collections of plants: more than 11,000 varieties in total. It should be noted that the on-site restaurant serves excellent food largely produced with local produce and an exceptional garden shop completes the visit.
There are many shows and concerts throughout the summer, but in the United States, Longwood is best known for its Christmas light display when the forest and the lake are illuminated while greenhouses are specially decorated for the occasion.
M. du Pont left much of his fortune to a foundation so it could open his garden to the public, a foundation that ensures, even more than half a century after his death in 1954, that the gardens are always impeccable.
Why do I like this garden so much? The truth is it was simply love at first sight and how can you explain that? Still, if I try to analyze things, it’s partly because I’ve never seen a garden that is so complete. It seems to me that everything I would like to see in a garden is found there. A visit is like touring the great gardens of the world. And the vast greenhouses offer plenty of things to see whenever the weather is less than perfect.
If I had the budget to build a fantastic garden entirely to my taste, it would look a lot like Longwood Gardens.
Longwood is open 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extended summer and Christmas hours to allow you to enjoy the illuminations. Allow a full day if you want to try and see everything. Address: 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Information: www.longwoodgardens.org.
Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden
This is a very tropical garden in a very tropical climate, located near Pattaya in Thailand. It is a large garden of 500 acres (2.4 km2) that opened in 1980. It includes several gardens of great interest, not to mention impressive collections of plants that will seem very exotic to gardeners from temperate climes: bougainvilleas, frangipanis, bottle trees and many more.
The Thai owners have tried to recreate garden styles from around the world, but using plants adapted to their climate. This leads to surprising scenes, like a classic French garden—essentially, an imitation of the garden of Versailles—but with brightly colored foliage rather than the somber greens of the original. I’m sure the Louis XIV, the Sun King, would have a heart attack if he could see the Thai version of his garden! They also rebuilt Stonehenge, but with all the stones in place … and gardens of extraordinary symmetry all around. In many ways, visiting Nong Nooch is often like seeing Western culture through the eyes of an Oriental: everything is there, but presented with surprising differences.
Among others, there is Butterfly Hill, where the plants that attract butterflies are set in a butterfly-shaped garden, the Desert Rose Garden filled with Adenium plants, with their swollen trunks and spectacular flowers, a vast and colorful orchid garden, an outstanding collection of tropical climbers and one of the world’s most complete collections of cycads. There is even a Pottery Display Garden where more than 100,000 clay pots are assembled in the most wonderfully imaginative ways.
Also, Nong Nooch is very child-friendly, with plenty of activities for children, so bring the family. That includes elephant shows and presentations of traditional Thai music and dance. And one other thing that is quite unique: you can, for a fee, visit the garden from the back of an elephant! Not even Kew Gardens can beat that!
And here’s another detail not many people realize: Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden is also a resort. You can enjoy the comfort of the garden’s luxurious hotel and thus visit in the quiet of the morning before the crowds arrive.
Really, if you go to Thailand, or indeed anywhere in Asia, this garden is a must!
Open year long from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Address: 34/1 Moo 7, Na Jomtien, Sattahip, Thailand. Information: www.nongnoochgardenpattaya.com
East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden
The United Kingdom is really the land of gardens. There are literally hundreds to visit, maybe thousands. How then to choose given all that choice? I love Kew Gardens (the famous botanical garden in London), Sissinghurst Castle, the most British of all British gardens, Inverewe Gardens with its insanely subtropical plantations way up in northern Scotland … and there are dozens of other world class gardens, often gardens with oodles of history to boot, almost everywhere in the country. That’s why I’m sure I’m going to shock a lot of people when I tell you my favorite British garden is not one of the great names nor even a garden of major historical importance, but a fairly new garden with a name much too long for my taste: East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden.
What is most surprising is that this spectacular garden is the work of only two men, Alan Gray and his partner Graham Robeson, who bought a parish house (vicarage) and land near an old Anglican church outside the village of East Ruston and set about converting it into a garden in 1972. There was literally nothing there but fields: they started completely from scratch. Twenty years later, they had already started opening their fabulous gardens to the public!
I only visited this garden once and indeed, didn’t have time to see it all, but I was just stunned by the beauty and the originality of it. Visiting it was like being in a dream: I just wandered about in a daze. I was with a group and when the time came to leave, they had to send out scouts to find me and bring me back. I’m never late on garden tours, never! But … this time, I was just lost to the world.
The 32-acre (13 ha) garden contains many wonders and especially an atmosphere that is often not British in the slightest: the Mediterranean garden with its exotic plants, the New Zealand tree ferns, the stunning California Desert Wash and so much more. During the visit, you can follow a plan and go from garden room to garden room without being able to guess what’s coming up next. You turn a corner or open a garden gate and suddenly you’re somewhere else entirely!
I was especially struck by the use “borrowed scenery” in this garden. It’s a Japanese concept, but rarely used so wonderfully even there. The idea is to create the illusion that objects outside the garden are actually part of it. Here, for example, the village church seems to rise out of a field of wildflowers, while a lighthouse which is actually almost a kilometer from the garden seems to be placed at the end of walkway.
The garden is open Wednesday to Sunday, plus holiday Mondays, from the beginning of April to the end of October, from 1 p.m. to 5:30 pm. It’s about two and a half hours north-east of London if you drive. Address: East Ruston, Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom. For information: www.e-ruston-oldvicaragegardens.co.uk
And there you go: my three favorite gardens! What are yours?