Your Chance to Snoop: It’s ‘Open Days’ Season in the Garden

I was at my station, a folding table dressed up with a burlap cloth, checking in visitors at a Garden Conservancy Open Days event maybe 10 years ago and answering questions from those who had already explored my garden, when I saw someone across the yard taking a photograph.

But of what, I wondered — what’s over there? There was nothing in that spot, I felt certain.

And then I realized that there was no way I could know exactly what the subject was. Because it was my garden, as someone else sees it.

Sharing a garden with others is an eye-opener — and it’s not just the visitors who draw inspiration from the experience. Make like a public garden for a day, and you may grow as a gardener, too, by watching and listening (in between fielding questions and identifying the same show-off plants over and again).

This growing season, the owners of 363 private gardens around the country are doing just that, acting as Garden Conservancy Open Days hosts in the country’s largest garden-visiting program. This year’s events, which began in March and will continue though October, are part of a tradition established in 1995 by the Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Garrison, N.Y. Last year, about 31,000 people visited 286 gardens, said Horatio Joyce, the conservancy’s director of public programs and education.

Hosting an open day “is a conversation starter,” Dr. Joyce said. “It allows you to build community around a garden.”

Neighbors you hardly know may come to visit, for instance — or volunteer to help.

“People are asking you about your work, work that you’ve been doing mostly on your own,” he added. “It’s intoxicating, in a good way. It’s affirmation.”

Among the landscapes represented are what Dr. Joyce calls “the marquee gardens,” like the interior designer Bunny Williams’s, in Falls Village, Conn., and Fred Landman’s Sleepy Cat Farm, in Greenwich, Conn.

But the potential for inspiration doesn’t correlate to the size of a garden or its full-time staff, he said. Something closer to the scale of your own D.I.Y. backyard may offer more takeaways.

In Palm Springs, Calif., Jeffrey Herr and Christopher Molinar were among this year’s 110 first-time hosts in March, welcoming more than 200 visitors to the modestly sized garden around their condominium. It was also the first time that Palm Springs has participated in Open Days.

Adding to the sense of newness, the couple’s garden is in relative infancy. It was only three years ago that Joseph Marek, their landscape architect, laid out a series of themed spaces, forming an L-shaped journey around their condominium.

Mr. Marek’s concept, Mr. Herr said, was “an enfilade of rooms, divided by surface material or delineated by plant material.”

One garden room highlights citrus; another is a fountain court. There is a space with raised planting beds, and also a cactus garden that incorporates some of the couple’s collection from their previous garden near Los Angeles.

Once the design was in place, they did the planting themselves, and some of the hedges haven’t reached full height yet. But that sense of a work in progress proved part of the appeal to guests, who wanted to know what size plants they had started with and other logistics, Mr. Molinar said.

“I think the fact that our garden was growing in intrigued people,” he said. “Because they could see that ‘Oh, this is a garden that I could maintain myself.’”

The clever use of borrowed scenery was noted repeatedly, as was one somewhat smaller view. “Where did you get a mirror that big?” guests wanted to know about a reflective feature in the outdoor room the couple call the atrium.

The trick: They upcycled a closet-door mirror.

But maybe most intriguing was the album of before-and-after photos on display, showing their progress from the tangled mess they bought to what Mr. Kerr described as “the scorched-earth look” of the cleared-out site before the new garden was planted.

As the curator of alpine collections at Denver Botanic Gardens, Mike Kintgen is a veteran of gardening for the viewing public. But welcoming visitors to his home in southeastern Denver, or to the garden of alpine and Western native plants at his higher-elevation weekend place north of Steamboat Springs, feels different.

For one thing, he said, there are no colleagues to compare notes with.

“I prep pretty hard,” he said. But he is so familiar with the landscape, he may not notice everything, and he craves a second opinion.

“I try to have someone else come through the garden before and just look at it with a critical eye to see what I’ve maybe missed,” he said. “It’s always good to have that other set of eyes — just walk in and be like, ‘OK, Mike, what were you thinking here?’ Or, ‘This looks great. Don’t touch anything. You’re ready to go.’”

His Denver home is on a corner lot, and the front yard, which gets little, if any, supplemental watering, is “a xeric planting of Western natives,” he said, “but also things from similar climates to Colorado.”

The lawn of buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) is enlivened with spring bulbs. “I wanted to show that xeriscaping could fit into a regular suburban landscape here on the front range of Colorado,” he said.

Apparently, it worked: Neighbors now affectionately call his yard Denver Botanic Gardens East.

At Skatutakee Farm, in Hancock, N.H., Eleanor Briggs has participated in Open Days numerous times since 2005. The next date her garden will be open is Aug. 24.

The landscape around her 18th-century farmhouse has some formal elements, including a 48-foot-long koi pond filled with lotus, waterlilies and canna. But “it is not a formal garden,” Ms. Briggs said. “There’s no boxwood, no topiary, none of that sort of thing.”

The layout, conceived about 30 years ago by Diane Kostial McGuire, a landscape architect who died in 2019, is intended to blend into its rural New England setting of forests and fields. A parallel pair of long borders, as well as a woodland border, give Ms. Briggs places to play with each new must-have plant as she discovers it, like a flashy Ajuga (Ajuga incisa Bikun) with holly-shaped leaves edged in cream color from Issima nursery.

“I love plants that make you gasp,” she said.

Whatever their region, style or years of experience welcoming visitors, Open Days participants seem to have similar reactions.

All confessed to worrying that the weather might dash their best-laid plans, of course. But they also emphasized that making a commitment to open their gardens offered a great benefit.

It set a mental timer, establishing a motivating deadline.

“I use the garden tours, too, as an excuse to do some projects — that oomph to get over a hurdle, like, ‘Oh, I need to do that,’ but I don’t quite feel like it or I don’t maybe have the budget to do it right now,” Mr. Kintgen said. “And then it’s like, ‘Well, the garden tour is coming, so let’s whip this into shape.’”

“To me, one of the huge parts of Open Days is the run-up,” Ms. Briggs said. “It almost forces me, in a good way, to really improve and see what I want to do next. It’s an I’d-better-have-something-to-show-people-and-it-had-better-be-good kind of thing.”

Everyone wants to make the best impression, but should all of the blemishes and in-process projects be disguised or hidden?

“I also use my home garden as an experiment sometimes, to just see if the plant will even live here in Colorado,” said Mr. Kintgen, who welcomed visitors on June 1. “So sometimes I have some things that actually don’t look fabulous, but I’m learning from that.”

With any luck, that provides one more thing for guests to ask about and learn from, alongside him. Not all such test-drive efforts read clearly in visitors’ eyes, though.

Ms. Briggs experimented once, inspired by John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli, of Sakonnet Garden, in Little Compton, R.I., who used to spray-paint faded alliums’ heads after they had bloomed. “I sprayed mine orange one year,” she recalled, “and everybody asked what on earth that plant was.”

Mr. Molinar praised the sense of community that comes from hosting a tour or viewing a garden as a visitor. He and Mr. Kerr “enjoy not only seeing other gardens,” he said, “but the camaraderie and trading war and horror stories over, ‘How did you get that plant to grow? It didn’t do well in my garden.’”

And even professionals like Mr. Kintgen acknowledged the value of visiting others’ gardens for tips. “Someone’s growing a plant better than I can,” he said, “and it’s like, ‘OK, what are your secrets? What have I been doing wrong?’”

Garden tours, it seems, are all about transferring knowledge.

“It dawned on me after the whole thing was over and you exhale,” Mr. Kerr said. “This is giving a master class. The only people that you have there are extremely interested, pay attention and ask great questions, and it’s really rewarding to have that kind of focus. And it’s on the garden — not really on the gardener, but on the garden.”

  • At 45 gardens this year, there is a Digging Deeper feature: a workshop, talk or demonstration. Here’s the lineup.

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

If you have a gardening question, email it to Margaret Roach at [email protected], and she may address it in a future column.

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