The Tour De Plants

Public garden tours offer access to exquisite private gardens.

Thinking about taking a garden tour? Here are some suggestions on getting the most out of a peek into someone else's horticultural world.

But first, lets back up six months or so, to a January morning. The view outside my window is a study of white and gray. North winds swirl last night's six inches of new snow and the thermometer on the garden shed struggles to climb to the projected day's high of 18 degrees.

I settle in at the dining room table with my second cup of coffee. After spreading out the newly arrived gardening catalogues, I reach for my gardening notebook and begin sorting through my collection of notes and photos from last summer's garden tours.

Trust your note-taking, not your memory!

I smile, recalling how much I enjoyed the tours. Wait a minute. Pictures, notes?

Yes, it's time again for garden tours ? and to record those trips.

What do you mean you can't go? C'mon, you know you've always wondered what kind of garden those folks have behind that hedge. Here's your chance.

No matter how long your gardening season is, it's always too short. Before you know it, you'll be putting the frostbitten garden to bed and waiting for those catalogues to arrive. Besides, these tours almost always benefit good causes.

Convinced? Great! Let's go over your prep list.

Before you go

Any gardener would be "Tickled Pink" to remember the name of this lily. Write it down.

Contact the tour organizers in advance.I always learn a lot by getting the inside scoop on the gardens ? which ones might be interesting to me, what visiting order makes the most sense, etc. Buying your ticket in advance often saves a couple of dollars and you won't have to stand in line. Plus, some garden tours limit the number of tickets sold. Be that early bird. And, pardon my bluntness, but be sure to ask the organizers about available bathroom facilities. Not knowing can put a crimp in your style.

Dress comfortably. Dress based on your meteorologist's best guess about the weather -- then bring opposite weather attire, just in case. Wear the most comfortable walking shoes you own. Ignore those images from the magazine photos. A floral sheath with dress flats may be de rigueur for that magazine layout, but chic garden attire won't do when you hit that buggy bog garden or brush up against those climbing roses.

These visitors are dressed to make a day of it.

Include a broad brimmed hat and sunglasses. Also, pack sunscreen, bug spray, some first aid supplies (to deal with blisters, thorn pricks, and headaches) and a cooler with beverages and a snack. Some tours offer bag lunches and some garden stops offer drinks, but unless you know that in advance, bring along your own supplies.

Bring writing materials and a camera.Without notes, I never can remember the names of all those plants, much less the names and email addresses of the gardeners I've met. Many a time I've regretted not capturing a plant combination or vista on film. Even if you don't use all those fabulous ideas right away, record them for that garden redesign five years from now.

Go with someone who shares your gardening zeal.Or if you go alone, be assured that the tour will include other kindred spirits. This may not be the time to require your less-than-enthusiastic significant other to prove her/his devotion by being dragged from one mixed perennial border to another. Besides, being gracious now could gain you that same consideration when your loved one spots the ad for that all-day coin show.

Once you're underway

Color and texture abound in this American style cottage garden

First and foremost, allow yourself the time just to enjoy the sights and the people. Here are some pointers and some photos to illustrate what you might want to look for while on your tour.

What's the garden's theme or purpose? Is it a naturalistic woodland garden? A utilitarian herb and vegetable garden? A formal courtyard to grace an entrance or provide entertainment space? Is it a wildly abundant cottage garden or a serene study for meditation purposes?

What is the owner/gardener striving to say with the garden?Any gardener who agrees to put his/her creation on tour will welcome your interest and questions?so ask!

What is your reaction to the display? Do you like it? Why? What feeling or impression does it evoke? Serenity? Exuberance? Abundance? Orderliness?

The temperature seems to drop with this cool color combo of lilies, delphiniums, phlox paniculata and annual phlox drummondii in a hot, sunny spot.

Notice the plant combinations. Why does that collection of plants please you? Is it the colors, the textures, the fragrances, or the mix of all these? Are they "hot" color standouts or "cool" combos? Annuals, biennials, or perennials?

Look behind the plants and examine the "hardscape"-- the buildings, walkways, gates, and garden ornaments. In winter these? can add structure and form in lieu of plants. How do these frame the plantings? What do they add to the scene?

Take note of the site conditionssuch as the sun/shade, wind, and soil. Does the garden you covet require an irrigation system you don't have (yet)? What may work for your host's garden site may not do well at yours.

If you see a plant you love, ask about its horticultural requirements. How hardy is it? Do you need to mulch it during the cold season? How much sunlight/shade and water/fertilizer does it require? Ask the gardener about its behavior. How tall or wide does it grow? How often do you have to divide it and/or how prolific is it in terms of spreading or self-sowing? Does it need to be staked?

The time to plan, rather than plant...

If you're not sure what garden tours may be available in your area, contact a local nursery, cooperative extension service, garden association, or check your local newspaper summer guide.

Your grand tour will likely bring you lots of inspiration and some new acquaintances. And it will help warm the cockles of your heart some cold winter's day.

J. B. McGowan is an avid gardener whose midcoast Maine perennial gardens have been featured in local publications and on house and garden tours.

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