Great Spring Gardens

Great Spring Gardens

Add these patches of paradise to your travel plans

Posted on May 1, 2019

Remember the interminable rain that spoiled our plans and dampened our moods this past winter? Well, it’s payback time. San Diegans are being rewarded with spring gardens that are more beautiful than I can ever remember. All around me, I see pink Indian hawthorn hedges, purple spikes of Pride of Madeira, and stately stalks of Acanthus mollis.

We aren’t alone. This is a great time of year for gardens all across the Northern Hemisphere. In Chicago, where the polar vortex terrorized the population for much of the winter, crocuses and irises are blooming, and pussy willows and tulips are not far behind.

Great Spring Gardens

The Chicago Botanic Garden in suburban Glencoe is one of the best in the world

If your travels take you to the Windy City this spring, stop in at the Chicago Botanic Garden in suburban Glencoe to enjoy its spring display. This 385-acre garden is well known for its English Walled Garden, impressive Bonsai Collection, and a serene Japanese Garden. From April to October, tram tours are offered, and its Model Railroad Garden, featuring 18 G-scale trains on 18 tracks, will start running on May 11. Insider tip: entrance to the garden is free of charge, but parking costs $30, so you might want to consider arriving by Uber.

I’m originally from the Chicago area and visited this garden last summer with an old friend. We enjoyed learning about its horticultural therapy program and checked out all five of the designated walking paths. One of these led us to a flower bed where the juxtaposed plantings of tall corn stalks, cheerful sunflowers, and yellow marigolds made me smile.

Great Spring Gardens

A classic Midwest grouping: corn stalks, sunflowers, and yellow marigolds

The Morton Arboretum (in Lisle, about 25 miles west of the city) is another great place to stretch your legs and enjoy nature. Here, on 1,700 acres, you’ll find 16 miles of walking trails, nine miles of paved roads, and guided tram tours that meander beneath a canopy of majestic trees.

No time to get to the suburbs? No worries. Spring flowers fill planter beds along Michigan Avenue and throughout Millennium Park at this time of the year.

A few of my other favorite U.S. gardens include the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, and the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, just a short ferry ride from Seattle. Closer to home, The Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino are wonderful.

Great Spring Gardens

The Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden is a beautiful example of Victorian-style glasshouse artistry

Southern Hemisphere Beauties

New Zealand is home to some spectacular gardens, too. To see them sporting spring flowers, the best time to visit is during October or November. The rhododendrons fade before summer (December to February) but the roses are usually lovely until May.

Great Spring Gardens

Christchurch Botanic Gardens has a stunning collection of hydrangeas

I’ve long been a fan of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens in the South Island, but only recently toured Hamilton Gardens, south of Auckland. What I found was an almost magical place where, rather than emphasizing plant collections, the focus is on the history, context, and meaning of gardens. Their exhibits tell the story about the development and use of gardens over time and across cultures. The impact is breathtaking.

Great Spring Gardens

Hamilton Gardens is home to Te Parapara — New Zealand’s only traditional Maori productive garden

Hamilton Gardens’ Paradise Collection is comprised of six distinctly different gardens from six different parts of the world. There’s an American Modernist garden, a Chinese Scholars’ garden, a Japanese Garden of Contemplation, an Indian Char Bagh garden, an English flower garden, and an Italian Renaissance garden. Each has representative structures, plants, and design styles, and each feels like a walled refuge from other times and places.

Great Spring Gardens

The Chinese Scholars’ Garden at Hamilton Gardens

The Production and Fantasy Collections include examples of other types of gardens including Victorian fantasy, Chinoiserie, kitchen garden, tropical garden, and a wonderful Maori garden that showcases traditional practices relating to food production and storage.

I was surprised to learn that at one time the area of the Hamilton Gardens was a Victorian rifle range and a sand quarry. As recently as 40 years ago, it was the city’s rubbish dump but, in a remarkable turnaround, it was named the International Garden of the Year in 2014.

Whether you see them in April/May or down under in October/November, spring gardens are a joyful sight. Given how beautiful our weather is now, you may not want to leave home. However, if May gets gray and June is gloomy, remember you can always seek out sunny spring gardens in other places around the world.   Elizabeth Hansen

The New York Botanical Garden

Images courtesy of ADAMS / HANSEN STOCK PHOTOS