Public gardens are a visit-worthy venue this time of year, not only because so many plants are looking good as spring unfolds, but because they’re in the fresh outdoor air and amenable to social-distancing.
Harrisburg is well situated within day-trip range of lots of great public gardens, including several of America’s best in the Philadelphia, New York, and D.C. areas.
Below are my top 10 recommendations as well as a dozen more worth seeing.
Check the listed websites for hours and visiting guidelines since most have advanced timed-ticketing requirements.
If public gardens are high on your travel list, check out my new e-book “50 American Public Gardens You Really Ought to See” that names my 50 U.S. favorites, in order. It’s a $7.95 download at GeorgeWeigel.net.
Save money on your garden visits by becoming a member of any garden that participates in the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocal Admissions program. That membership gets you in free to more than 330 other American public gardens.
Let’s start close to home …
170 Hotel Road, Hershey
Highlights: The nearly 5,000 rose bushes are the best-known draw in these 23 acres, but there’s also an action-packed one-acre Children’s Garden, the Milton and Catherine Hershey Conservatory with its year-round butterfly atrium, impressive spring-bulb and summer-annuals displays (at least in non-COVID times), many specimen mature trees, a large central pond with fountain, perennial and herb gardens, a Japanese garden with a pond, and a large rock/conifer garden.
George’s Take: I like the annuals display even better than the flagship roses. The conservatory is a beautiful addition — a jewel on the hill, laid out like it was there all along. And the Children’s Garden is not just for kids.
Contact info: www.hersheygardens.org. 717-534-3492.
1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, off Route 1 in Chester County
Highlights: Longwood is more than 1,000 acres of theme gardens, monstrous fountains, amazing flower displays, woodland gardens, topiary, a huge meadow garden, an innovative Idea Garden, a water-filled indoor children’s garden, numerous plant collections, shows, and an incredible conservatory complex that’s going to get bigger and better under a three-year, $250 million improvement project.
George’s Take: Wow! Longwood is arguably the world’s most impressive public garden. Of all of the gardens I’ve seen worldwide, I can’t say I’ve seen any better than Longwood – including England’s Kew and Wisley. If you only visit one American public garden ever, this is it.
Contact info: www.longwoodgardens.org. 610-388-1000.
New York Botanical Garden, The Bronx, N.Y.
Bronx River Parkway and Fordham Road, The Bronx, N.Y.
Highlights: Fifty theme gardens are spread over 250 acres, including 55 acres of native forest showing what New York looked like before concrete.
Features include the beautiful Enid Haupt Conservatory (America’s largest Victorian-style glasshouse), a multi-faceted Children’s Adventure Garden, 1 million kinds of plants, one of the world’s largest rock gardens, a rose garden, 8,000 orchid varieties, 30,000 trees, and a home-garden demo section.
George’s Take: NYBG has a staggering diversity of plants but enough sheer beauty to keep both the serious plant geek and the more stroll-minded spouse happy. The conservatory is particularly amazing, especially with the New York landmarks made out of plant parts during Christmas.
Contact info: www.nybg.org. 718-817-8700.
786 Church Road, near Wayne, Delaware County
Highlights: This 30-acre “pleasure garden” focuses on interesting plants and plant combinations, cutting-edge containers, and novel design.
It’s more a plant-lover’s paradise than a botanic garden, featuring courtyard gardens of tropicals and formal water features, a woodland Asian garden, a cut-flower and vegetable garden, native plants, tens of thousands of spring bulbs, many majestic mature trees, and a unique Ruins Garden showing plants overtaking an abandoned stone structure
George’s Take: Plants are the stars here, and they’re used in clever, artistic, and different ways. The gardening staff “owns” the gardens they’re assigned, which lets them be exceptionally creative. Go to enjoy, not to study.
Contact info: www.chanticleergarden.org. 610-687-4163.
675 W. 252nd St., The Bronx, N.Y.
Highlights: It’s only 28 acres but very well designed and diverse for the size, featuring mixed flower gardens, lushly planted containers, a water garden, an alpine plant house, extensive herb gardens, specimen trees, and collections of viburnums, lilacs and conifers.
The grand view across the Hudson River to New Jersey’s Palisades is what drew monied folks uptown to this overlook in the 1800s.
George’s Take: I love the Hudson view! That alone is worth the trip, especially looking through the giant flower-covered pergola. This place seems bigger than 28 acres, and like Chanticleer, is more of a “pleasure garden” featuring cutting-edge plants and plant combos.
Contact info: www.wavehill.org. 718-549-3200.
1800 Glenallen Ave., Wheaton, Md., in the D.C. metro area
Highlights: This Montgomery County park is disguised as a botanic garden. Tree-lined trails wind through 50 acres of display gardens, including a Japanese garden with teahouse and pond, a forest garden, a fragrance garden, annual-flower trial beds, a formal water garden, a perennial garden, and a rose garden, plus a butterfly house.
George’s Take: It’s hard to believe this is a county-owned park, open free to the public. It has the plant palette and array of gardens of many top-shelf botanic gardens. Nice mix of themes, too.
Contact info: www.montgomeryparks.org/parks-and-trails/brookside-gardens. 301-962-1400.
Ladew Topiary Gardens
3535 Jarrettsville Pike, Monkton, Md.
Highlights: The uber-wow attraction of this 22-acre estate of free-spirited artist Harvey S. Ladew is the elaborate collection of topiary evergreens, which the Garden Club of America once labeled “the most outstanding topiary garden in America.”
But Ladew Gardens also has 15 garden rooms that are worthy attractions in their own right, such as a hillside iris and perennial garden, a rose garden, a Victorian garden, a beautiful Yellow Garden, and a cutting garden.
George’s Take: You’ll be stunned at the size and complexity of the topiaries, but don’t let them overshadow the rest of the gardens. This place is way more than sculpted yews. I especially like the Yellow Garden of all yellow, golden, and limey-white plants.
Contact info: www.ladewgardens.com. 410-557-9570.
Mt. Cuba Center
3120 Barley Mill Road, near Hockessin, Del.
Highlights: Woodland paths everywhere throughout this 650-acre, rural du Pont estate are filled with native trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers – nearly 2,000 species. But there’s also a sunny meadow, research beds of lilacs and native perennials, and a few more formal, non-native gardens closer to the house.
George’s Take: A must-see for anyone interested in native plants. Almost all natives worth growing in an eastern landscape or woodland are here, including rarities such as the swamp buttercup, nodding trilliums, and bigleaf asters. It’s especially beautiful in spring when so many of the natives bloom and again in fall when the trees and shrubs turn color.
Contact info: www.mtcubacenter.org. 302-239-4244.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
1000 Washington Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Highlights: Once a city ash dump, these 39 acres were carved out in the early 1900s to become a plant haven in the heart of bustling Brooklyn.
Two dozen theme beds are connected by paved walks, including the Cranford Rose Garden, the nation’s first Japanese garden, the nation’s first public-garden children’s garden, a native woodland, a Shakespeare garden, a fragrance garden, collections of lilacs, tree peonies and conifers, and a conservatory with tropicals and a bonsai collection.
George’s Take: The Japanese garden with its spacious pond and viewing pavilion is my favorite feature here. Take time to just sit and look. The cherries are gorgeous in April, and the rose garden peaks in June and early fall.
Contact info: www.bbg.org. 718-623-7260.
100 Northwestern Ave., on the northern outskirts of Philadelphia
Highlights: Part of the University of Pennsylvania, Morris is the state’s official arboretum, spanning 92 acres and featuring 2,500 different plant species from 27 different countries.
Woody plants star in nearly two dozen theme gardens, including a rose garden, cottage garden, Japanese garden, sculpture garden, a rare Victorian fernery, perennial beds, and a one-acre outdoor garden railway that winds through miniaturized, plant-specimen recreations of Philadelphia landmarks.
George’s Take: Morris is way more than just trees, although you will find specimens of just about any woody plant you’d think about growing – all labeled, too. The outdoor garden railroad is very cool, and the view overlooking the Pennock Flower Walk from the belvedere is one of my favorites anywhere.
Contact info: www.morrisarboretum.org. 215-247-5777.
Twelve other day-trip gardens well worth visiting include:
Greenwood Gardens, 274 Old Short Hills Road, Short Hills, N.J. A project of the Garden Conservancy, this 28-acre estate garden is a nice blend of formal and naturalistic areas, including Italianate water gardens, amusing sculptures, and wildflower meadows. https://greenwoodgardens.org. 973-258-4026.
U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave. NE in northeast Washington, D.C. The sprawling, 446-acre national treasure has collections of conifers, hollies, azaleas, boxwoods, magnolias, and dogwoods, plus a grove of official state trees from all 50 states and the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum with its iconic collection of bonsai plants and Japanese gardens. www.usna.usda.gov. 202-245-4523.
Phipps Conservatory, 1 Schenley Drive, Pittsburgh. The flagship, 14-room, 1893 Victorian glasshouse is filled with orchids, desert plants, ferns, a butterfly house and changing exhibits of tender specimens from around the world and is surrounded by 15 acres of outdoor gardens. www.phipps.conservatory.org. 412-622-6914.
PHS Meadowbrook Farm, 1633 Washington Lane, near Jenkintown. This 25-acre estate of florist J. Liddon Pennock Jr. features an English Cotswold-style house surrounded by 15 different garden rooms, each with a different style or theme. https://phsonline.org/locations/phs-meadowbrook-farm. 215-887-5900.
New Jersey Grounds for Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton, N.J. This 42-acre landscaped park founded by the late sculptor J. Seward Johnson features nearly 300 contemporary outdoor sculptures surrounded by diverse gardens. www.groundsforsculpture.org. 609-586-0616.
Winterthur, Route 52 in Winterthur, Del. Henry Francis du Pont turned 982 acres into an American “manor house,” complete with 60 acres of gardens and a novel Enchanted Woods children’s garden in addition to a museum specializing in American decorative arts. www.winterthur.org. 302-888-4600.
U.S. Botanic Garden, on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. Although it’s currently closed due to COVID, America’s official Botanic Garden is a glass and aluminum conservatory filled with tropicals and specimens from all over the world, plus a series of outdoor gardens surrounding it. www.usbg.gov. 202-225-8333
Green Spring Gardens, 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, Va. This 27-acre Fairfax County park doubles as a botanical garden with some 20 different demonstration gardens. www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/green-spring. 703-642-5173.
Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. in northwestern Washington, D.C. Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 13-acre estate feature outdoor rooms that include a formal French parterre garden, a multi-level Japanese garden, cutting gardens, and more. www.hillwoodmuseum.org. 202-686-5807.
Frelinghuysen Arboretum, 353 East Hanover Ave, Morris Township, N.J. This county-run park and estate is 127 acres of home-demo and theme gardens, plus woods and meadows, a Colonial Revival mansion, and cutting-edge plants. www.arboretumfriends.org. 973-326-7601.
Nemours Mansion and Gardens, 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, Del. Alfred I. du Pont’s 222-acre estate is grand and largely formal, patterned in classic French style after Versailles’ gardens (clipped evergreens, statuary, fountains, etc.) http://nemoursestate.org. 302-651-6912.
Penn State Arboretum, corner of Park Avenue and Bigler Road, University Park. Theme gardens, a Pennsylvania-flavored children’s garden, and a new Pollinator and Bird Garden are highlights of this free public garden on Penn State’s main campus. https://arboretum.psu.edu. 814-865-9118.