I’M SO NOT a traveler. I figure there’s no need to go to Africa because I’ve read Paul Theroux’s “Dark Star Safari” twice. My shelves are stuffed with books on famous gardens, and I’ve mentally walked their grounds many times while curled up on the couch at home.
When I visited England’s Sissinghurst Castle and Great Dixter, it was a revelation. There’s something surreal about experiencing a garden, in real life, in real time, that you know so much about (or think you do). While I could have listed Vita Sackville-West’s favorite plants and told the story of Christopher Lloyd digging up his rose garden to plant tropicals, I had no real concept of the intimate scale of the gardens, let alone the countryside around them. When it comes to gardens, you gotta be there.
So I’m planning a West Coast tour. Because you can bring plants home on a driving trip, the itinerary includes nurseries as well as public gardens. With plant acquisition involved, maybe I’ll actually go.
First stop is Portland to visit the Lan Su Chinese garden (), a meditation of a destination with intricate paving, ponds and a teahouse, all with an urban vibe. A treasure in the heart of the city, its scale is human, its locale slightly gritty.
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Visiting Asian gardens reminds me that atmosphere trumps plants, a vital lesson for any plant geek. If you need some reinforcement on this point, as I do, a visit to the 5½-acre Portland Japanese Garden () in the west hills may be in order. It’s a stroll garden, interlaced with pathways, ponds and traditional fencing. The quiet beauty of both these gardens depends more on built elements than plants, so they’re at their most compelling in late fall and winter when the bones show through.
I couldn’t head south without stopping by Xera Plants () in Southeast Portland, the first retail outlet for this exciting wholesale nursery. Co-owner Paul Bonine (author of “Black Plants”) offers an unusual selection, including natives, for dry shade, drought and deer resistance. I hear it’s a stylish little nursery full of plants both practical and covetable. Maybe I’d better drive the Honda Element rather than the Prius.
Especially because my next stop would be Flora Grubb Gardens () in the Bayview District of San Francisco, an iconic nursery and shop that defines cool modernism. It’s so packed with containers, modern outdoor furniture and weird, desirable succulent plants that even I am no longer satisfied with the virtual tour on its website.
I’d round out the trip with visits to two favorite California public gardens. The gardens at the Getty Villa Malibu () are re-creations of ancient gardens designed for growing herbs and other medicinal plants, as well as for sanctuary and repose. As you stroll past reflecting ponds and bay laurels you expect a line of chanting monks to round a corner between the clipped hedges. I love the easy, useful mix of ornamental, edible and medicinal plants; monasteries didn’t draw distinctions like we do.
From classical to gothic — actually, I’m not sure how to characterize Lotusland, the fantastical estate of Polish opera singer Madame Ganna Walska. Located in a residential area of Santa Barbara, Calif., Lotusland (www.lotusland.org) is richly atmospheric, a place of statuary, randomly themed gardens and plant oddities. On the way back up the coast, this aloe-and-cacti-laden garden seems a fitting last stop for an eclectic tour. It’s a historically significant garden that is also deeply personal, the lifework of an eccentric woman. Not unlike Sissinghurst, when you think about it.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.