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Hosting a private garden tour can be as satisfying as orchestrating a perfect dinner party, says Marian McEvoy.
GARDENING IS HALF PLEASURE, half peril. Anyone who's planted a window box knows that the best laid plans don't always pan out—Mother Nature has her own ideas. Some plantings leaf out, flower and fruit profusely every year; others stall, fester or crumple completely. Soil toil is great exercise, but aching backs, sunburn, broken nails and scratched up arms are definitely part of the process. Deluges and droughts are even more devastating. It's no wonder that when plants survive and thrive, the people who tend them tend to show them off.
Enter the private garden tour. Hosting one can be as satisfying as unveiling a new décor or orchestrating a perfect dinner party. Taking an outdoor garden tour exposes you to new plants, inventive layouts and unusual designs and structures that could enrich your own outdoor space.
When you feel you're ready to stage your own garden party/tour, timing is everything. Some plantings come into their own during early or mid spring; some look better in summer or fall. If your allée of blush-pink peonies is more breathtaking than your clumps of asters and sedums, plan a garden tour in May. If your dahlias and hydrangeas pack more punch than your tulips, hyacinths or daffodils, go for a July or August tour. (If you keep a garden journal, you can pinpoint which plants flower when.) Once you've decided on the week and month, time of day is crucial, too. Take a tip from professional garden photographers, who work early in the morning or late in the afternoon. (They also love shooting landscapes on cloudy, foggy and rainy days, but that's an acquired taste you don't need to acquire.) In short, harsh midday sun makes gardens look homogenous and flat: Leaves and flowers tend to droop a bit under the heat. So do people, so nix a midday garden party.
Most important, plan your garden party/tour as a walk, talk and gawk treasure hunt for about a dozen people. You don't need a soundtrack or candles—your beautifully coddled, at-their-peak plants are the stars. Decide on a tour route that ends in a surprise treat. As you guide people past shrubs and flower beds, be prepared to identify specific plants, but if some of your guests are less than avid greenies, don't hit them up with an overload of proper Latin names and pruning tips.
The pot of gold at the end of the tour should be a lingering sunset and a small table set up with cocktails. A big pitcher of iced tea will hit the spot if it is garnished with sprigs of homegrown mint. A couple of bottles of Prosecco or pink Champagne will be great in the great outdoors if you toss in a few raspberries plucked from the prickly bushes climbing up your gazebo. If you live in California, try serving a big, icy pitcher of gin fizz made with the limes from the trees flanking your patio. Give a tour—celebrate the fruits of your labor.
Behind the Fanciest Fences
Tour private American gardens from Washington to Texas via the Garden Conservancy's Open Days program
FOR 23 YEARS, the Garden Conservancy has been sponsoring, maintaining and publicizing some of America's most fascinating landscapes, including huge endeavors like the rehabilitation of the gardens on Alcatraz Island in Northern California. The Conservancy's Open Days program is a chance to get an up close, personal peek at what America's most knowledgeable, talented gardeners are up to behind closed gates and hedges. These tours give gardening groupies access to private landscapes from early spring through late fall every year. The group's stable of several hundred small-to-vast gardens in some 25 states (number varies year to year) includes plantings for all tastes: modernist minimal, Frenchy formal, romantic English, rustic and rocky, flashy color cacophony. At $5, an Open Days tour is way more economical, visually exciting and fun than hiring a garden consultant for an hour.
Open Days has ground rules: hands off the plants, stay on paths, leave the dog in the car and always ask permission to take a photo. If a garden's owners and/or keepers are on the scene, they don't mind answering questions. The Garden Conservancy strongly suggests that owners be present during Open Days tours. (Most private gardens do not include labeled plant names and info, so a communicative host is a godsend. Even better are those who provide a list of plant names when you enter.) For more information, go to gardenconservancy.org