It used to be that the first public institution I would seek upon
arriving in a new city would be the art museum. That was when I was an art
critic and curator. Now, though I still tend to focus on museums if I’m in NYC,
in other cities, I am just as apt to locate the nearest public garden. Much like
museums, there is a hugely diverse range of sizes, types, and sensibilities in this
realm. Like museums, public gardens offer changing exhibitions as the season
progresses and different plantings come into strong focus. Like museums, public
gardens must have highly skilled and creative curating by the horticultural
professionals who plant and tend them.
There are public gardens where your first thoughts are: “Wow,
they sure spent a lot of money here!” and/or “I’ll never get through this place!” That’s what I
thought when I visited the wonderful Chicago Botanical Gardens, which has 385
acres on the outskirts of Chicago, 24 display gardens, and 3 native habitats.
That’s also what I thought as I sweated my way through the Sarah P. Duke
gardens, which occupy a mere 55 acres in Durham, NC. (Note to self: never visit
southern public gardens after June.)
These are both major educational institutions as well as
showplaces, with attention paid to native habitats and food growing as well as
ornamental plantings. Neither is really focused on indoor conservatories; I
don’t think Duke has one, and Chicago’s is nice but minimal compared to its outdoor
plantings. (The city already has marvelous traditional glasshouses at Garfield
and Lincoln Parks.)
Then, there is your public garden, the one you can visit
every weekend. For me, this is the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.
This facility could use some improvement, but it is beautiful and has the
potential to be great, with its vintage Lord & Burnham glasshouse set in an
Olmsted park. It is a glorious winter retreat.
Sonnenberg glasshouse interior.
Finally, there are public gardens with fascinating
personal stories behind them. Often these used to be private estates. I have
visited many of these in England (I think most of their public gardens have
this history), and there are a number in the U.S. One eerily beautiful example
is Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, NY. Created 100 years ago—by a banker’s wife—as a
private paradise on 20 acres, Sonnenberg has a Queen Anne mansion, Lord & Burnham
greenhouse, water course, rock garden, rose garden, Japanese garden, and many other features,
including a working farm. Only thing was, there was no one to leave it to and
the place gradually decayed. It has now been mostly restored, but with plenty
of nooks and crannies that look frozen in time, Miss Havisham style. The glass
house is probably the most dramatically dilapidated aspect of the place. But
still beautiful. The mysterious Linwood Gardens, though smaller, is another such place, a former summer home in Pavilion., NY. It is now known for its fabulous tree peony collection—the original owner was obsessed with them.
Sonnenberg exterior garden.
At Linwood (I'll be reporting on the peonies later this month.)
There are plenty of public gardens like this, that still
retain the fingerprints of the private people who made and loved them, and they
are always my favorites.