Monday, March 3, 2014

One More Horticultural Resource -- List of Selected U.S. Historical and Estate Gardens

Visitor at Monticello vegetable gardens. Photo by Chiot's Run
Visitor at Monticello vegetable gardens
Photo by Chiot's Run

Over the past couple of months, I've added a few lists to the sidebar of this blog.

The first list was my effort to provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the highest quality U.S. botanical gardens I could find.

Last month, I tried to give the same treatment to U.S. arboreta.

Now I have compiled a third (and perhaps final) resource list comprising some of the most famous, impressive and beautiful historical and estate gardens across the United States. As with the others, you'll find that list in the sidebar directly following the arboretum list.

What separates an historic or estate garden from a botanic garden or arboretum?

Clearly historic or estate gardens typically are built around old mansions. Many of these properties try to stay true to their historical roots by continuing to use the same types of plants (including heirloom vegetables and ornamentals) or at least the same design ethos.

Botanic gardens and arboreta are subject to no such constraints. Generally, they can experiment to their heart's content with new designs and new plants.

In other cases, the difference is simply a question of age. Gardens like the ones at Monticello and Tryon Palace are hundreds of years old, whereas many U.S. botanic gardens were founded within the 20th Century.
Gardens at Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC. Photo by Zach Frailey
Gardens at Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC
Photo by Zach Frailey

On the other hand, there are much older botanic gardens overseas -- the botanic garden in Padua, Italy is more than 450 years old!

So age is not the main consideration and neither is the question of whether or not the garden is built around an old estate. In Nashville, Tennessee, Cheekwood Botanical Garden is built on the grounds of a 1930s estate that was constructed with a fortune made through an early investment in Maxwell House coffee.

But Cheekwood does not attempt to recreate the formal gardens that existed on the site 80 years ago. Elements of those gardens may remain, but Cheekwood now includes a Japanese garden, an herb garden, an impressive dogwood collection, a rain garden and many other marvelous ahistorical plantings.

I would say the other major difference between botanical gardens, arboreta and historic/estate gardens, is that botanical gardens and arboreta have multiple missions. Yes, they are places of beauty, but they are also focused on horticultural education, research and preservation.

By contrast, it seems that historical or estate gardens are concerned primarily with aesthetic beauty, with historical education being a secondary goal.

One obvious way in which these different types of institutions reveal their different goals is through the use of plant labeling. Botanical gardens and arboreta understandably tend to be very good about labeling the plants in their collection so that a visitor instantly knows what type of plant she is observing - genus, species and named variety (if applicable).

By contrast, an historical or estate gardening may have minimal labeling, if it has any at all. Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful Chanticleer garden in the Philadelphia suburb of Wayne. There were unobtrusive boxes where placards were stored that gave interested visitors information on nearby plants, but the plants themselves were unlabeled so as not to interfere with the pure aesthetic appreciation of their beauty.

A floating wonderland at Chanticleer in Wayne, PA. Photo by Simon
A floating wonderland at Chanticleer in Wayne, PA
Photo by Simon
All three types of gardens have their merits. I hope these three lists in the sidebar inspire you to visit botanic gardens, arboreta and historical/estate gardens near where you live - or wherever your travels take you.

(PS - I hope that my focus on the U.S. will not be misinterpreted as narrow-minded nationalism. I have no doubt there are many amazing and worthy botanic gardens, arboreta and historical/estate gardens around the world, but unfortunately I do not have the time at the moment to publish a comprehensive list. What I may do sometime later this year is create another list in the sidebar of some of my favorite foreign gardens that I have visited in person. That list would be rather brief at the moment, but I hope it would grow in years to come.)