10 glorious gardens to explore

Think about azaleas bursting into bloom in spring, glorious desert cacti in a bevy of bright colors or a world-class garden drawing visitors to an abandoned quarry in Canada. If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing Monet’s Garden in Giverny, you can without having to fly across the pond: A good replica exists in Kansas. Want to see a real Japanese garden? They abound in the U.S., with a particularly lovely one on the late Marjorie Merriweather Post’s estate in Washington, D.C.

There's still time to organize a garden-tour vacation or visit a special place close to home before summer is gone for good. Here are suggestions for unique gardens, all with their own rewards. This is only the tip of the trowel; beautiful gardens bloom in every corner of the United States and Canada.

Bellingrath Gardens and Home, Theodore, Ala.
For: seeing one of America’s best public rose gardens

It is amazing what bottling Coca-Cola can do. In the case of Walter Bellingrath, it made him over-the-top rich in the midst of the Depression, enabled him to marry his flower-loving secretary, and led to the creation of Bellingrath Gardens on 65 acres just 15 miles south of Mobile, Ala.

In 1932, when most folks couldn’t afford much pleasure, Bellingrath put an ad in the newspaper, inviting anyone who wanted to see his gardens to come. Folks are still arriving. Today’s garden features more than 2,000 roses in 75 different varieties, as well as camellias in winter and abundant azaleas in spring, when the crepe myrtle, frangipani and begonias are also at their finest.

Visitors can also tour the Bellingrath home and take a narrated cruise on the Fowl River aboard “The Southern Belle” — a treat for bird watchers.

Butchart Gardens, Vancouver Island, Canada
For: becoming one of the nearly 1 million annual visitors to this world-class garden

Yes this garden is in Canada, but it’s in Brentwood Bay, near Victoria on Vancouver Island, and easily accessible from Washington State. And Butchart Gardens is sufficiently superb to rank among the great gardens of the world. That’s why close to a million delighted annual visitors can thank cement for being able to enjoy this picture-perfect setting.

An entreprenur named Robert Butchart needed limestone to manufacture cement. He found it here and made a fortune. Later, his wife — the company’s chemist — turned the abandoned limestone quarry into a glorious sunken garden, filled with flowers in the most vivid colors that nature can design and backed by mountains decorated with towering evergreens.

That’s only one part of the garden. In spring, more than 300,000 bulbs burst into bloom. In summer, pick up a posh picnic on Saturday nights, watch fireworks and hear a massive Aeolian pipe organ boom out melodies.

Coastal Maine Gardens, Boothbay Harbor, Maine
For: seeing the sea while enjoying gardens

What could be lovelier than strolling through gardens rich with iris and roses and rhododendron while walking past a pretty waterfall, all just feet away from the Atlantic Ocean? Coastal Maine Gardens lives up to its name, providing a bevy of beautiful gardens virtually at water’s edge.

If the salt air combined with the fragrance of flowers doesn’t sufficiently stir visitors’ senses, the gardens’ Lerner Garden of the Five Senses is virtually guaranteed to. Signage includes descriptions in Braille. Raised plantings ensure that folks in wheelchairs can see over the garden’s stone walls. Visitors are encouraged to savor the aroma of the flowers and to enjoy the sharp scent of the ocean water.

A labyrinth takes a winding journey to a small beach, where visitors can dip their feet into the icy water. Hands-on activities abound.

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix
For: experiencing the vast diversity of desert plants

Think of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, and it’s likely that your first thoughts might be: dry, arid, not much to see. The dramatic displays of 20,000 desert plants from every corner of the world at the Desert Botanical Garden, cheek by jowl with the Phoenix Zoo, will disabuse you of that notion.

Those plants come in a rich array of colors, so forget olive drab and khaki. If you walk the garden’s People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail, you will journey through five separate habitats rich in the plant resources that have fed, medicated and basically sustained life in Arizona for centuries. The Desert Wildlife Trail reveals vivid wildflowers. Evening visits reward with night-blooming flowers and dramatically illuminated cacti.

From November 10, 2013 to May 18, 2014, the garden will feature Dale Chihuly’s vibrant glass sculptures that seem to mimic desert flowers.

Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, Washington
For: glorious gardens including a Japanese garden blended with American style

Sure, the rich really are different, but in the case of Marjorie Merriwether Post — founder of General Foods and at one time the world’s richest woman — the difference involved creating a beautiful home surrounded by equally lovely gardens and leaving the whole fabulous property for visitors to enjoy after her death.

Tour the 40-room Georgian mansion in northwest D.C. and treat yourselves to afternoon high tea. But the real pleasure lies in the 13 acres of formal gardens. Of those, the innovative and non-traditional Japanese garden, filled with stone lanterns, graceful pagodas, a rock pool and a carved Foo dog (there to ward off evil spirits) is very special. A Colorado blue spruce snuggles near an Asian red maple. Winding pathways lead to the jolly Hotei, a Japanese-Buddhist god of luck. Stone lanterns, lily pads, statues of symbolic animals and nicely arranged stepping stones add to the peaceful effect.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas
For: a greater appreciation American treasures

Lady Bird Johnson, a former First Lady, had a grand passion for America’s vast and varied species of wildflowers. The first Lady of the American stage, Helen Hayes, was also a keen gardener and fan of wildflowers. When the flower-loving ladies collaborated, a lovely wildflower center was the result.

The center, on the University of Texas at Austin campus, includes a 279-acre public garden filled with native Texas bluebells, Simpson’s rosinweed, fiery flame acanthus, scarlet sage and teabush and more — all wild and native to Texas. Mrs. Johnson was determined to preserve precious native plants, some of which have medicinal value.

Stroll the Wildflower Center’s 12-acre garden, admiring some 650 species of plants. Visit the arboretum, catch a free lecture, relax over lunch at the café, and perhaps simply sit on a bench and read a book in this peaceful setting.

Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis
For: Victorian elegance, great greenhouses and more to see than you can do in a day

The Missouri Botanical Garden is not only the nation’s oldest botanical garden, exhibiting flowers and trees for more than a century and a half. It is also a National Historic Landmark and a major research facility. And it is a fabulous place to visit, though be warned: you may not be able to see it all in one day.

Start with the Doris Waters Harris Lichtenstein Victorian District, where garden founder Henry Shaw’s handsome Tower Grove House can be visited. Snap photos of the Kresko Family Victorian Garden, with its marble statue of Juno, circa 1885, and plantings that mimic what would have been in an English garden of that era. Get a little lost in a pretty maze, enjoy the aromas of an herb garden and then explore beyond. The Climatron, the first geodesic dome to be used as a greenhouse, is great fun.

If time allows, head to the Lucy and Stanley Lopata Prairie Garden to see what the prairie pioneers saw.

Monet’s Garden at Giverny, Olathe, Kan.
For: a chance to see Giverny without going to France

Almost everyone is familiar with Claude Monet’s painting of his garden next to his home in Giverny, France. But not everyone can get to Normandy to see it in person. There is, however, a quite delightful option: Simply go to Olathe and see a replica.

This year the Monet Garden in Olathe, designed by Nancy Branham, is celebrating its 10th birthday. The garden isn’t an exact replica, but it comes close, and anyone who knows Monet’s work will recognize it in a second.

The garden covers a full acre and is planted with more perennials, annuals and bulbs than you could shake a paintbrush at. The koi and lily pond are here. The green bridge: You’ll see it. The colors are the tones of Monet’s colors and the garden style is wild, not manicured. Of course, some of the plantings are different, due to the differing climates. Master gardeners are on site on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and will happily answer questions.

New York Botanical Garden, New York City
For: roses and rainforests, loads of lilies and a Victorian-style glass house

While New Yorkers in search of a “nature day” are ubiquitous at the New York Botanical Garden, you will also see folks from every corner of the world there. The gardens are that good. They are also easy to access. Simply take the Metro-North train from Grand Central to the Botanical Garden stop in the Bronx.

Upon arrival, you can’t miss (because it is so massive) the gloriously glass Victorian-looking Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Inside, journey through numerous ecosystems, strolling from an Amazon rainforest to an arid desert dotted with cacti to a vibrant display of orchids in very varied shades.

The outdoor gardens are equally fabulous. A stroll around the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Gardens rewards with upwards of 3,000 plants in wildly different colors. In spring, lilacs bloom in every shade from white to seriously deep purple. Catch the azaleas and rhododendron as they burst into bloom.

The Chicago Botanical Garden, Glencoe, Ill.
For: serene islands, a kid-friendly feeling and a romantic setting

Another big-city botanical garden (in suburban Glencoe), The Chicago Botanical Garden brings a rural feeling to residents of a very big city. Its three large greenhouses together showcase desert, tropical and semitropical climates. Its outdoor gardens bloom their hearts out in summer.

Kids will enjoy the new Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, but they will really love the summer-only Model Railroad Garden: 7,500 square feet of plantings with 17 scale model trains that chug past some 50 models of American landmarks, all made from flowers and other natural materials.

Grownups will enjoy the chance to wander through the three-island Malott Japanese Garden, also called Sanch-en. As nightfall nears, couples should head to the five-acre Evening Island, dotted with deep purple Muscari (also called bluebells or grape hyacinth). There, they can crack open a bottle of wine and listen to a carillon concert.