THE WASHINGTON POST – One minute I was smack in the middle of the real world, standing in a nondescript parking lot during a global pandemic, hot and sweaty under the mask I wore to fend off the deadly virus.
The next minute I was walking under a white trellis covered in snaking vines, through a narrow evergreen hedge, and into a garden where roses bloomed pink, red and coral in neatly cut beds.
My daughter, Chloe, and I were alone in this little oasis at Fuller Gardens on the New Hampshire seacoast, so we slipped off our masks.
Misty ocean air cooled my face as I breathed in the smell of flowers. A fountain tinkled, a rabbit hopped across the grass, and the world beyond the garden hedge seemed to melt away.
I felt like Alice in Wonderland, disoriented but eager to explore this pretty and peaceful world.
Like so many Americans, I have been taking the same three walks around my neighbourhood since March, thanks to the novel coronavirus. I cancelled my 40th birthday vacation and got a refund on flights for work travel.
I’m grateful for my backyard, but I’m frankly tired of staring at the same patch of grass every day.
I won’t be travelling this summer – or anytime soon – but my desire for novel experiences and new places hasn’t gone away.
In fact, it’s gotten more intense knowing I can’t have it. So when an acquaintance told me about a local public garden that had recently re-opened after shutting down because of the pandemic, my imagination went into overdrive looking at pictures of it online. It was beautiful.
One spot reminded me of a place I’d visited in England the summer before. Another evoked a dewy fairyland. I looked at the garden’s address and saw that it was a short drive from my house, yet I had never visited.
Intrigued, I typed “botanical gardens near me” into Google and saw even more pictures that called to mind bucket-list places such as Japan and Versailles.
These gardens were close to my house – many less than a 30-minute drive – but I hadn’t visited any of them. It was time to change that.
I’m not alone in my sudden desire to visit local botanical gardens. Data from around the country is showing an increase in visits to outdoor spaces this summer, and public parks, including botanical gardens, were the top spot that visitors to cultural institutions planned to return to in the wake of pandemic closures, according to Colleen Dilenschneider, data analyst and publisher of Know Your Own Bone, a market research website for cultural executives.
To find places near you, PublicGardens.org, the website of the American Public Gardens Association, includes a map of its member gardens that’s searchable by garden name or Zip code. Searching by location yields all the gardens within 150 miles.
“Botanical gardens are a known entity,” said Director of External Relations for the association Joan Thomas. “They’re places of sanctuary, refuge, and calming places to be.” Plus, “they’re cared-for spaces,” she added, natural but organised, alive but orderly, combining the structure of a museum with the outdoor space of a park.
Eager for something new but still wanting to stay safely outdoors, Chloe and I hit the road.
Our first stop was Bedrock Gardens in Lee, New Hampshire, where two miles of paths link 20 acres of cultivated gardens with woodland and meadows.
“It is designed as a journey,” Jill Nooney, who co-founded and owns Bedrock Gardens with her husband, told me later. “A journey has to have a destination, and it has to have adventures along the way.”
At Bedrock Gardens, themed garden “rooms” connect to one another along meandering paths like “beads on a necklace”, Nooney said. The landscape also is peppered with pieces of Nooney’s art, much of which she built with found objects. Some pieces recall the property’s former life as a dairy farm – a pitchfork and shovels become the crowning pieces of a sculpture, and metal tractor seats transform into swivel chairs.
Each garden room has a whimsical name that echoes its theme. The “Wiggle Waggle” is an undulating, narrow water channel dotted with lotus and lilies, and “ConeTown” is an ode to the dozens of conifers that grow there.
While it’s possible to simply wander around and enjoy the landscape without any context, be sure to grab the map that comes with the suggested USD10 donation for admission. It will deepen the experience, teaching visitors about everything from horticulture to history. “There are aspects in this garden that are based on French formal gardens, Asian gardens, medieval fruit growing,” Nooney said.
Chloe and I weren’t the only visitors that day, but at times it felt like we were nearly alone in the 37-acre landscape, which was perfect for social distancing.
“There aren’t many things you can do safely with kids. Because it’s so large it can easily incorporate 300 people,” Nooney said. “People are starved for safe outdoor activity. People are starved for something that refreshes the soul.”
Seeking to refresh our souls a little more, Chloe and I got back into the car and headed 20 miles southeast to another, very different place: Fuller Gardens in North Hampton, New Hampshire, which former Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller built at his summer estate, Runnymede-by-the-Sea, in the 1920s and ’30s.
Whereas Bedrock Gardens felt quirky and fanciful, Fuller Gardens is decidedly more manicured, reflecting its elegant country estate history. An English perennial garden, formal rose garden, classical European sculptures and fountains, conservatory, dahlia display garden, and neat paths and hedgerows give the place an Old World feel. A few days later, Chloe and I visited yet another garden near our home, the one at the Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover, Massachusetts, which is also part of a former country estate.
Behind the estate’s historic house, we explored around a French garden’s vegetables and fruit trees, an elegant sunken walled garden with intricate wrought-iron gates, and an exuberantly flowering perennial garden filled with bearded iris, phlox and plume poppy.
Visiting such gardens is not only good for the spirit; it’s also good for the gardener’s imagination. After all, gardening is another activity that’s gotten a boost during the pandemic.
“Ideas are free,” Nooney said, encouraging budding landscape designers to take inspiration from the art within Bedrock Gardens’ landscape, maybe by piling up some stones to make a cairn or inverting a pot to see how it looks.
“There are tremendous things to be learnt from botanic gardens around the country and around the world, but by focussing on local gardens, you can really see what will grow best in your own community,” said Director of Horticulture for the Trustees of Reservations Joann Vieira, which manages the Stevens-Coolidge Place and other properties throughout Massachusetts. Local botanical gardens could also help you satiate your wanderlust when far-flung travel isn’t possible. At Fuller Gardens, you might feel transported by the Japanese Garden, where a traditional bamboo farming device called a shishi-odoshi – which uses water and noise to frighten away crop-eating animals – and a pond filled with bright orange koi add meditative, liquid sounds to the hushed space.
Or you might feel dropped into a classic British novel. Wandering around the manicured rose beds at Fuller Gardens, I half expected to see Elizabeth Bennet strolling along the hedgerows with her nose stuck in a book, or Alice herself, chasing after the white rabbit.
That global feeling is evident at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, a 281-acre Frederick Law Olmsted landscape that’s free and open to the public.
“We’re a tree museum. So when you come to the Arboretum you have the opportunity to see trees from all over the temperate world,” said Arboretum spokesperson Jon Hetman, pointing to collections from China, Japan, Korea and Europe.
The Arboretum’s broad landscape and wide, paved walkways provide ample space for people to safely explore outside, he said, though the website suggests avoiding peak visitation hours.
Hetman believed that visiting botanical gardens can remind us of the “restorative power of nature”, and after being in some of these beautiful, serene places, I have to agree with him.
“While people are really feeling adrift and uncertain, gardens and nature itself can really offer a way to decompress and provide some guidance and solace,” Vieira said.