Gardeners should visit public gardens to broaden their knowledge of garden design and plants. Visiting private gardens is also a good practice, especially to learn about the possibilities on a residential parcel, with various levels of time and resources. By contrast, public gardens typically are much larger than private gardens and have much more gardening support, including staff and volunteers. They can be wonderful resources for the home gardener’s continuing education.
An excellent resource for visiting public gardens is Donald Olson’s new book, The California Garden Tour (Timber Press, 2017). The book’s subtitle, “The 50 best gardens to visit in the Golden State,” describes its scope, and the contents page lists these targets geographically. The book includes maps of the northern and southern parts of the state, showing garden locations.
The Northern California section lists twenty-six gardens, from the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in the north and continuing southward to The Secret Gardens of Monterey.
The Southern California section lists twenty-four gardens, with the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden northernmost and San Diego’s Balboa Park southernmost.
Olson’s nineteen-page introduction is definitely worth reading. It includes a concise history of California gardens, a distinction between art gardens and botanical gardens, a nice overview of the California floristic province, and more.
Olson then describes each of the gardens in two or three pages, providing enough information to prepare the visitor with the garden’s history and orientation. The descriptions include a summary of basic facts: address, operating hours, phone number and web address, admission cost (usually free), etc.
His descriptions are readable and include one or more photographs by the author. Olson’s comments about the plant collections and noteworthy plants reveal his familiarity with horticulture and his appreciation for plants that each garden features.
Information about the books fifty gardens and other public gardens in California is available on the Internet: Google “California public gardens” for links to several websites that list such gardens, often with terse descriptions. Such information can be useful but doesn’t compare well with Olson’s more complete and expert presentation, like that of a well-informed friend. A visit to given garden’s website will yield more information of interest, but if you are interested in visiting any of California’s excellent public gardens, this book will be a valuable introduction.
Here are three recommendations for visiting a public garden.
Select a garden to visit firstly for its convenience. The maps in Olson’s book will be helpful in spotting gardens that are close to your home, or near a future travel route. Certainly, readers of this column you might begin with gardens of the Monterey Bay area: the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and The Secret Gardens of Monterey.
As you enter a garden, notice how the pathways bring visitors past a series of horticultural displays. These displays might be designed as vignettes or “rooms,” or as sections that focus on plant genera, geographic regions or landscape styles. If the pathways offer only a random variety of routes to follow, look for a map that helps to make sense of the garden experience. Larger public gardens’ maps might highlight one or more walking routes as learning opportunities. A large garden that lacks an organizational model can be confusing and less successful, despite expert maintenance of the inventory of plants.
Finally, prepare to enjoy your visit. For some gardeners, preparation might include listing learning objectives, but for all visitors, it is wise to wear comfortable shoes and weather-appropriate attire, carry some water and provide enough time to enjoy the experience.
Federal and state agencies recognize public gardens as living museums. They offer unique resources for both avid gardeners and casual appreciators of nature to gain an understanding of our horticultural environment. California has many wonderful public gardens (even more than the fifty excellent gardens in Olson’s book) that should be part of every gardener’s ongoing education. Find time to see a new garden every year.