My wife and I love to visit gardens. Wherever we live, we are regular visitors to nearby gardens, and whenever we travel, we visit any gardens within reach. Last year we were undecided on where to vacation so decided to select a vacation destination based on gardens in the vicinity. As we researched, we began to wish there was a source that could tell us whether or not a garden was worth basing a vacation around.

Now don’t get me wrong. I really believe every public garden is valuable and worth visiting. From small, community gardens to large research facilities, every garden serves a valuable function, but that function varies widely from garden to garden. Some are small, serve almost as living community centers, providing locals with a place to gather, garden, and learn. Many are park-like, providing places for recreation and relaxation, as well as informal educational opportunities. Still others are research centers or conservation centers, even combinations of all of the above. As more and more of us live urban lives, separated from nature by glass and concrete, gardens serve as a link to the natural world, offering us opportunities to experience, enjoy and learn about the plants that are so vital to us.

Gardens are so diverse in appearance and mission that it is difficult to evaluate them. How do you compare the magnificently unkempt landscape of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

johnson wildflower

to the carefully manicured estate at Filoli?


Or the forests of Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve

bowmans hill

to the sparse beauty of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum?

Desert Museum

I’d like to tell you to visit them all because they are all wonderful. But few of us have the resources to visit them all, so need guidance to determine which we need to visit in person and which can be enjoyed vicariously. By telling you what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of each I’ve visited, maybe I can help you decide.

First, I should warn you that I do have my own strong opinions about what is good and bad in gardens. I think a cornerstone of any public garden is education so in general I favor good signage. Of course there can be too much, but in general I’m for it. I’m also strongly in favor of identification signage on plants. I know some people think it detracts from the aesthetic, but learning the names of things is the first step in education. You can’t teach someone to cook without teaching them the names of the ingredients, and if you took the labels off everything in your cupboard, it might be more attractive but I don’t think it would improve your cooking!

I strongly dislike seeing dead or dying plants on display, unless there is a clear reason for leaving it, or a sign explaining it. I’ve heard people say “It’s okay to leave this dead plant because it shows %#&$”. The problem is, what it’s showing is not clear to most people, they only see a dead plant. I know manpower is in short supply at most gardens and there may not be time or money to take down the dead oak tree, but I’ve seen dead perennials, that would have taken seconds to remove, remain in place for weeks. It makes me think I’m paying more attention to the plants than the gardeners are.

I also have my own prejudices, likes and dislikes that are not as rational as those above. For instance, I prefer open vistas to dense woods; I prefer naturalistic gardens to formal gardens; I prefer interesting form to beautiful flowers. However, I have loved every garden I’ve ever been to, so my prejudices are not blinding. I hope my comments will help you find gardens to visit, and will foster a greater appreciation for those you do visit.

This site is a travelogue of gardens we've visited. It includes photos and comments.
At the bottom of each page is a place for you to leave comments. Feel free to let others know what you think of the garden or the review.

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