You don’t have to get your hands dirty to get the lowdown on great gardening. The temperate climate of the Carolinas has allowed wonderful public gardens to root and flourish in high terrain as well as along the shores. Here are a dozen worth checking out this summer.
Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Drive time: 30 minutes
The Dukes gave Durham more than a university. The tobacco tycoons-turned-philanthropists helped start and endow the Sarah. P. Duke Gardens near Duke University Medical Center. Today, it’s four gardens on 57 acres, linked and crossed by roughly 5 miles of walkways and paths. There’s the elaborately landscaped Terraces (the original garden, from the 1930s), the Bloomquist Garden of Native Plants, the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum and the Doris Duke Center gardens.
The hillside Terrace is notable for its fountain-holding stairway, rock garden and waterfall; the Bloomquist showcases vegetation native to the region; the Culberson’s specialty is East Asia.
There are ponds throughout; at the largest, in the Culberson, walk the close-to-the-ground Yatsuhashi Bridge, named for and modeled after a famous span in Japan; it has a zigzag pattern that, according to Japanese folklore, prevents straight-moving evil spirits from following your footsteps.
Programs are offered throughout the year.
Admission: free. Details: gardens.duke.edu.
N.C. Botanical Garden
Drive time: 30 minutes
We’re talking about 10 acres holding 11 themed display areas devoted to plants native to the state. There are individual gardens for the Coastal Plain, Sandhills, Piedmont and mountain regions; others point up water gardens, ferns and – check this out – a five-bed garden devoted to North Carolina’s rare carniverous plants.
The entire affair, which includes Coker Arboretum, is affiliated with UNC Chapel Hill and additionally holds the UNC Herbarium, a research facility that contains more than 800,000 specimens.
Admission is free, and free one-hour guided tours are offered the third Saturday of the month. Numerous programs, many free of charge, are offered. Details: ncbg.unc.edu/coker-arboretum.
Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden
Drive time from Raleigh: 3 hours
Close, splendid and innovative. About a third of its 380 garden acres are now developed – and there’s something new every few years. The Lost Hollow children’s garden opened in 2014; the orchid conservatory in 2008. The Stowe, in partnership with the Carolina Thread Trail, now has 3.2 miles of nature walks.
Displays change with the seasons, and one theme this year is Edible Ornamentals: container and bed displays of showy flowers combined with vegetable plants at locations throughout the gardens.
Check the website for outreach programs for schools, families and gardeners with special interests.
The end-of-the-year Holidays at the Garden events and activities are fun and easy to do.
Admission charged. Details: dsbg.org.
Drive time: 2 hours
Hey, isn’t Reynolda House a museum of American art? Sure is, inside the former mansion of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. But the estate also has 19 acres where you’ll find a sprawling wetlands and Reynolda Gardens.
The formal gardens are operated by nearby Wake Forest University; a huge and restored early 1900s greenhouse includes two rose gardens (more than 300 bushes), the color-coordinated Blue & Yellow Garden and the Pink & White Garden. It adjoins an outdoor formal garden (designed in 1921) planted with annual veggies, flowers and herbs. Also in the outdoor mix are the All-American rose garden – more than 800 bushes – the children’s garden and display gardens.
Besides roses, spring blooms include azaleas, lilacs and butterfly bushes.
Garden admission: free. Details: reynoldagardens.org.
Sandhills Community College Gardens
Drive time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
The school’s horticultural grounds were designed and created by students – 11 gardens plus a native wetland trail through a bird sanctuary.
The 3-acre Margaret Ambrose Japanese Garden includes a meditation garden. The Atkins Woodside Garden sports waterfalls, pools and a butterfly garden. The showstopper is the 1.5-acre Sir Walter Raleigh Garden – a formal, Tudor-style affair that includes courtyards, a sunken garden, herb garden and holly maze.
Admission: free. Details: sandhillshorticulturalgardens.com.
Furman University Asia Garden
Drive time: 4 hours, 15 minutes
Find a bit of unusual and tranquil beauty toward the north side of the Furman University campus.
The school long had a Japanese garden; it was refurbished and redesigned in 2007 and given an expanded focus with the addition of Chinese plants. The Asia Garden sits alongside a pond and contains an ornamental waterfall. Walk the path to explore the pastoral setting. Plantings include many species of bamboo, Japanese maples, azaleas, creeping phlox and various irises. The pond contains water mint, forget-me-nots and cattails.
Just up the hill is a contemplative spot – Place of Peace – whose centerpiece is a reconstructed Japanese temple built in Japan, disassembled into 2,400 pieces, shipped to the U.S. and reassembled by Japanese craftsmen. There’s not a nail in it: The structure is held together by interlocking joinery. Its simple, organic beauty is stunning.
Admission: free. Details: furman.edu.
Drive time: 3 hours 45 minutes
What does the horticulture staff of 60 or so deal with every spring? More than 74,000 tulips blooming in a three- to four-week period, in addition to the more than 15,000 daffodils and a host of other flowers, from lenten roses to lilacs. Tulips, azaleas, rhododendrons, roses and a succession of other flowers bloom into fall.
It’s all a draw for visitors and butterflies.
The 4-acre Walled Gardens, done in late-1800s style and holding themed areas, is lush with summer by annuals. The largest plot at Biltmore is the 15-acre Azalea Garden, one of the top collections in America of native species.
The Italian Garden holds classical statuary and three water gardens with water lilies, lotus and papyrus. The Spring Garden, wrapped in a grove of white pine and hemlock, holds spring-blooming shrubs such as forsythia, spirea and mock orange. The Rose Garden has heirloom roses and trial varieties. The Shrub Garden, off on its own, sports Japanese cutleaf maples and purple-leaf European beech.
Also in the mix: Biltmore’s glass-roofed Conservatory, with exotic orchids, palms and ferns.
Admission charged. Details: biltmore.com.
Drive time: 4 hours
Famed Victorian landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted left his mark across America. Biltmore, one of his biggest projects, was among his final efforts; he never got to see a desired arboretum built in that vicinity.
But you can see what he was aiming for: Close to a century later, right off the Blue Ridge Parkway and not far from Biltmore, is the state-owned N.C. Arboretum – 434 acres of gardens, research facilities and trails.
Roughly 65 acres are given over to about a dozen special gardens and growing areas.
The formal Blue Ridge Quilt Garden holds flowers planted in patterns that emulate old-fashioned mountain quilts; the design changes through the year as its 24 “squares” bloom and are replanted. The Heritage Garden is filled with plants once raised in the High Country for making baskets, brooms, paper and dye. Another garden is fully given over to different types of hollies. Along Bent Creek is a garden that holds examples of every kind of azalea found in North America.
A must-see is the bonsai collection of 100-some trees and shrubs raised and pruned in the Japanese style of miniaturized horticulture.
Admission: free. Parking is $8 per vehicle. Details: ncarboretum.org.
JC Raulston Arboretum
Drive time from downtown: 15 minutes
For such a respected site at N.C. State, you’d think it would have been around forever. But the arboretum, across from the N.C. State Fairgrounds, was created in 1975. (They’ve just been very, very busy.) The Japanese Garden has Japanese crape myrtle, spreading Japanese maple, upright Japanese maple, dwarf Hinoki false cypress, bamboo, etc. Enter by crossing a traditional wooden bridge – a zigzag pattern, to keep out evil spirits – and pass through plantings to reach the enclosed Zen garden of contemplation.
Another unusual place is the Scree Garden, which shows deep-root plants that grow on gravel slopes (“screes”) despite often adverse climates. Those displayed are native to the U.S., Mexico, Mediterranean areas and South Africa.
Admission: free. Details: ncsu.edu/jcraulstonarboretum.
Philip Simmons Gardens
Drive time: Four hours
Among the most famous artisans in the Southeast is Philip Simmons (1912-2009), a Charleston ironworker of such artistic caliber that his pieces are on display at the Smithsonian. But St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church, 91 Anson St., had its two gardens decorated with his work, including the “heart” garden with a pair of heart-shaped iron gates. That garden shows plants designed by Pearl Fryar, the legendary, self-taught topiary artist of Bishopville, S.C.
Admission: free. Details: philipsimmons.us/works.htm.
Murrells Inlet, S.C.
Drive time: 3 hours, 20 minutes
In 1929, Archer Huntington and his spouse fell in love with the Lowcountry south of Myrtle Beach. Huntington was a northern grandee looking for a place to winter; wife Anna Hyatt Huntington was one of the foremost sculptors in the country. They purchased and combined four plantations.
He died in 1955; she died in 1973. Their considerable estate was split along U.S. 17. Brookgreen Gardens, widely considered one of the foremost outdoor sculpture gardens in America, occupies the Huntington lands west of U.S. 17. (The 2,500 acres between the highway and the sea became Huntington Beach State Park.)
Brookgreen showcases Anna Hyatt Huntington’s love of American sculpture. It has one of the largest and top-rated outdoor sculpture gardens in the country. The 551-acre Sculpture Garden alone holds close to 1,500 pieces of art.
Being a garden, the grounds are festooned with immaculate flower beds as well as Lowcountry natural areas. Special events and programs are staged throughout the year.
Admission charged. Details: brookgreen.org.
Drive time: 3 hours
The island is famous as the site of The Lost Colony, where in the 1580s Sir Walter Raleigh tried to plant North America’s first English-speaking colony. Its Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and “Lost Colony” outdoor drama are popular warm-weather attractions.
The Elizabethan Gardens nearby continues the time-travel theme. Its 10.5 acres hold a number of gardens, each set off by brick walls or thickets. Enter through the Tudor-replica Gate House (built to resemble a 16th century orangery), and you’ll see plantings that Queen Elizabeth I herself would’ve enjoyed. The Shakespearean Herb Garden has Old World plantings both common (basil, rosemary) and rare (horsetail reed); the Queen’s Rose Garden is emblematic of her dynasty (the rose was a Tudor badge). There’s the Sunken Garden, too.
Admission charged. Details: elizabethangardens.org.
The (garden) plot thickens in S.C.
Rats! We ran out of room before we could fill you in about three great gardens in South Carolina. (Tips can be like seeds – more are always planted than space and time allow.) Here they are:
Riverbanks Gardens Zoo & Garden. Enjoy the animals at the Columbia park, but save time for the 70-acre botanical area’s 10 gardens. Riverbanks has been ranked among the top 10 U.S. gardens by Horticulture magazine. Admission charged. Details: riverbanks.org.
Kalima Gardens, on the campus of Coker College in Hartsville, shows you just what avid gardeners can do with Piedmont clay and sand. See for yourself on your next trip to Myrtle Beach. From Charlotte, take the route that goes through Florence (U.S. 74 East/S.C. 151/U.S. 76 /S.C. 576/U.S. 501). Hartsville is a little over halfway, and the garden is right off S.C. 151. Details: kalmiagardens.org.
Cypress Gardens, Moncks Corner. If deja vu bubbles up, it could be from seeing Cypress Gardens in more than a dozen movies and TV shows, including “The Patriot,” “Cold Mountain” and “North and South.” Romantics may recognize scenery from “The Notebook.” Not romantic? Parts of “The Swamp Thing” were shot here, too. You’ll find 80 acres of Lowcountry swamps you can tour on a guided or self-guided boat tour. Better yet are the 3 miles of walking paths and nature trails that take you around to a wildlife garden, bog garden, camellia garden, heirloom garden wildflower meadow and inland rice field and to the iconic wedding gazebo on a lagoon island.
Here’s the bad news: Cypress Gardens has been closed since October due to flood damage. It is hoping for a partial reopening in late summer.
Admission charged. Details: cypressgardens.info.