If you are planning a road trip up the eastern seaboard this spring or summer, add a visit at some of the beautiful public gardens to your itinerary. The South is filled with breathtaking, historic gardens your whole family will enjoy. Get outside in nature, avoid frantic crowds, destress in a serene setting, and gain inspiration to enhance your own back yard. Here are a few of my favorite southern gardens outside Georgia.
Brookgreen Gardens – Pawley’s Island, SC
When Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington purchased the site in 1931, they had a three-fold mission in mind: to collect, exhibit and preserve American sculpture, and animals and plants of the Southeast. A National Historic Site, Brookgreen Gardens features the finest collection of American figurative sculptures in the country, with a collection of over 2,000 works by 425 artists that you can view in the gardens or in three galleries. The gardens are often listed in the top ten botanical gardens in the country, and in the top five favorite gardens by readers of Southern Living magazine. The Lowcountry Zoo is home to native animals of South Carolina that are being displaced by loss of habitat. Before the Huntingtons purchased the land, much of the site had been cultivated as rice fields. You can learn about the history of enslaved Africans who maintained the rice crop, and the Gullah Geechee culture, by taking a Creek Excursion on a 48-foot pontoon boat. For more information, go to brookgreen.org.
Fun Fact: Just across the road from Brookgreen Gardens is Huntington Beach State Park, once owned by the Huntington family and now open for camping, surf fishing, and bird watching. You can view alligators up-close-and-personal in the park’s freshwater lakes.
Sarah P. Duke Gardens – Durham, NC
Located on the campus of Duke University, this free, public garden encompasses 55 acres of themed gardens and is a magnet for tourists, students looking for a tranquil place to study, and future brides who prize the beautiful backdrop for engagement and wedding photos. In the early 1930s, a professor challenged Sarah P. Duke, the widow of one of the Duke University founders, to finance a garden in an abandoned ravine on campus. Flooding at the original site prompted a new garden to be designed on higher ground. The gardens feature four specialized areas of interest: Historic Gardens (the original terraces); Native Plant Garden, showcasing plants that thrive in the Southeast; Asiatic Arboretum, a spectacular Japanese garden; and Center Gardens, which include a white cottage garden and a pond with an impressive water lily collection. For those who appreciate exercising in nature, you can enjoy five miles of pathways throughout the garden. For more information, go to gardens.duke.edu.
Fun Fact: The fish pond at Duke Gardens is home to the Victoria water lily, with foliage that can extend up to seven feet wide!
Ladew Topiary Gardens – Monkton, MD
One of the most imaginative gardens I have ever visited, Ladew Gardens features 22 acres of themed gardens, a historic manor house, and more than 100 stunning topiary forms. Topiaries concern “the art of trimming and training shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes.” The owner, Harvey S. Ladew (1887–1976) was a self-taught gardener who amazingly designed and created all the magical topiaries and gardens, with little help and no formal horticultural education! Obsessed with fox hunting, Mr. Ladew’s most famous topiary is the Hunt Scene, portraying riders on horseback jumping a fence as they follow hunting dogs chasing a fox. Children will be enchanted by such whimsical topiary creatures as a unicorn and seahorse, and visiting the Butterfly House. Architectural Digest named Ladew Gardens one of the “ten incredible topiary gardens around the world.” For information, go to ladewgarden.com.
Fun Fact: After purchasing an antique Chippendale partners’ desk to be part of the furnishings of his newly restored manor house, Harvey Ladew discovered the desk was too large for his office. He decided to build a library addition specifically for the desk. The Oval Library contains over 2,500 books and has a secret door!
Norfolk Botanical Garden – Norfolk, VA
This lovely Tidewater garden began in the 1930s as an azalea garden on 150 acres deeded by the City of Norfolk. The original garden featured thousands of azaleas, rhododendrons, blooming shrubs and trees, and miles of walking trails. Today you can explore 60 different garden areas, including the Bicentennial Rose Garden, dedicated in 1976 to honor our nation’s 200 year anniversary. During blooming season, May-October, you will be awed by a display of over 250,000 blooms from over 3,000 rose plants, representing 300 different varieties. Another favorite spot is the Statuary Vista garden, filled with outdoor sculptures, set amid a tranquil shade garden. The Children’s Garden allows youngsters to touch, smell, and experience nature close up. For more information, go to norfolkbotanicalgarden.org.
Fun Fact: Surrounded by water on three sides, Norfolk Botanical Garden offers the unique opportunity to enjoy viewing the garden on a scenic boat tour.