The Garden is Open




Garden Conservancy

A private garden in Potomac, MD welcomes visitors on a 2009 Open Days tour (Nikon D300).

“No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn.”
— Hal Borland

As I write this, I am trying to block out the fact that about 50 linear feet of copper gutters recently ripped off the back of my house, a lingering present from Snowmaggedon 2. So I decided to listen to Mr. Borland and think about spring and the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tours.

I can’t remember when I first learned about the Open Days program, but it was when I was still shooting film, some time after I returned from my trip to England. The Open Days program  is modeled on England’s National Gardens Scheme, through which owners of specially selected private gardens open them to the public on designated days during the year. Admissions proceeds are donated to various charities. Brook Cottage, about which I wrote earlier, is among those gardens that participate in this program. (For a wonderful description of how the Brits’ program works, visit The Autumn Cottage Diarist’s blog.)

My first visit to a local garden open through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program was in Arlington VA, to a garden designed by Tom Mannion, APLD. It seemed pure magic to me. And the owners were on hand to talk about the garden and how it was created.


Garden Conservancy

The back yard of an Arlington VA garden as it appeared on tour during the Garden Conservancy's Open Days Program in 2004 (Nikon N80).

The patio area between two studios (Nikon N80).

I was hooked. Then, for a couple of years, there were no gardens open through the Open Days program in our area. So, en route to my Hudson River Valley trip in 2004, I decided on the spur of the moment to stop in Nutley, NJ on a hot August day where I had learned there would be a fabulous garden open. When I arrived at the location, I discovered not one, but two amazing Garden Conservancy gardens right across the street from each other. Both were designed by Richard Hartlage, a well-known landscape designer, author and photographer.

The smaller of the two gardens, belonging to Graeme Hardie, was a masterpiece of getting the most out of a relatively small space,  with numerous level changes. It was absolutely full of color, beautifully planted containers, and colorful walls, creating a tropical feel.

Graham Hardie garden

Sculpture greets visitors as they enter the Hardie garden (Nikon D100).

The multi-level design makes the garden seem larger than it is (Nikon D100).

Across the street, Silas Mountsier’s one-acre garden was almost overwhelming. Large sculptures are dotted throughout the garden.  Hartlage, who is based in Tacoma, Washington,  was actually on site for the day, talking to visitors about both gardens and his plans to expand Mountsier’s even further (which I understand has occurred since my visit).

Silas Mountsier, Garden Conservancy

The front yard of the Mountsier Garden is boldly accented with tropicals and annuals (Nikon D100).

Abstract sculptures in the small patio at the Mountsier garden, with Datura in the background (Nikon D100).

Mountsier garden

A large cow sculpture with a Cornus controversa 'Variegata' brought by Hartlage as a five-gallon specimen when the garden was first planted (Nikon D100).

Wherever you live, there’s a good chance that there will be one or more Open Days in your area this year – the Conservancy’s program is expanding and new areas are added all the time. Consider joining the Conservancy; you’ll receive a free copy of their 2010 Open Days directory (I’ve met gardeners who plan their vacations by it!). Or sign up for information by e-mail about GC events. The GC has many stunning large-scale projects they’ve helped to fund, including the restoration of the gardens at Alcatraz.

Check out their schedule to see what’s available – and stay tuned here, as I write more in the coming months about what’s in store for gardeners in the DC area this year under the Open Days program.

Photos from the DC area’s Open Days 2010 program are featured in my book, The Garden Is Open. For a preview of the book or to purchase it, visit the “My Books” page.

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12 Comments on “The Garden is Open”

  1. Pam/Digging Says:

    I love the Garden Conservancy tours here in Austin, which are offered every other year in October (including this year). I hope to make it to San Antonio’s too. Your photos of the gardens you’ve toured are inspiring.

    • Melissa Says:

      That’s interesting that the Open Days program runs only every other year in Austin. It is quite a lot of work to find gardens that work, get them organized and ready to show (for the owners and designers), and then pray for good weather! You learn so much from visiting other people’s gardens and we are planning to include gardens of different sizes and styles, not just “grand” ones, so visitors can feel there is something to take away no matter the size of their garden. Have you had any of your gardens on the Open Days tours?

  2. Edith Hope Says:

    Dear Melissa, What an excellent posting and one which combines an interesting commentary with good illustration. You are so right, one can learn so much by looking at the gardens of other people even if it is no more than to think, well I do not wish to copy that.

    The gardens that you have featured here are fascinating, not least because of the interesting and unusual sculptures they contain. How I should love to have the cow standing happily to the side of a Cornus.

    I was most alarmed to read about your house. I am so sorry and do hope that it will be sorted out soon.

    Thank you so much for making a ‘Favourite’ of my weblog. It is a most kind thought and one that is very much appreciated.

    • Melissa Says:

      Edith, so glad you enjoyed the writeup. You’re absolutely right about seeing things in other gardens you would want to AVOID doing in your own but it usually involves as you said choice of sculpture or perhaps a particular type of water feature.

      I have added your blog site to my Google Reader so I get updates every time you post since I don’t always have time to get to Blotanical. Thanks for stopping by! I will have another Open Days post in a month or so about some of the gardens that were last spring’s DC area Open Days tour; then in early May one about some of the gardens that we will have open in May.

  3. Susan Greif Says:

    Love the cow – maybe I can find a smaller version?!

  4. Elizabeth Reed Says:

    Hi Melissa!
    I escaped Pittsburgh’s Snowcalypseameggedon to Sanibel/Captiva–whole different tapestry of green textures!
    Got the alerts from your recent postings, so, now back home, can finally view them on a big screen and savour them with the snow,snow,snow, drip drip drip in the background.
    I have a whole day to fill my head with gardens and plants before setting to work at the brainstorming process tomorrow.

    Your posts are such an inspiring place to start!

    • Melissa Says:

      Liz, so nice to hear from you! I’ll bet Sanibel/Captiva was a welcome getaway – sorry to hear you have more snow coming down. I am on my way home to DC after a wonderful trip to the Palo Alto area to visit my son. It is mild although cloudy here; I did manage to visit two different gardens within easy driving distance of where I was staying and hope to write about them soon.

      Good luck with that brainstorming process – as growing season (hopefully) approaches, I will be doing the same. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Melissa, sorry to hear about your house,(envious of your copper gutters).
    What gorgeous gardens, I love the sculpture on the plinth, gorgeous against the blue wall. And that cornus, heaven!

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, I was so entranced with the cornus myself that I ordered one for a client. Unfortunately, it hasn’t grown very much. We’ve transplanted it to another spot and I have my fingers crossed, but am doubtful. And keep looking at those sculptures in other gardens; you’ll find your hear’s desire for your own garden eventually!

  6. MacGardens Says:

    Thanks for the shove. I just joined the Garden Conservancy. Been meaning to do that for quite a while. I also appropriated your Borland quote. It seems ever so appropriate for this year. I enjoyed your description of the gardens you visited and as I was reading I finally understood… Garden Shoots… Photography… Boy am I slow…
    Sorry to hear about your gutters. Ours are currently hosting the largest icicle I’ve ever seen. I’d actually like to see some rain tonight to begin to wash away that snow and ice.

    • Melissa Says:

      As long as you have gutters, wish away for that rain. Of course now with a large portion of mine gone I’m not so keen on the rain scenario . . . I’m very glad to hear you’ve joined the GC and I hope you’ll make the trek down to the DC area in May to visit the Open Days gardens on the 22nd!

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