By P. Allen Smith

I

’ve been fortunate enough to visit the gardens of far-flung locales, across oceans and continents, but the Southern garden speaks to my soul unlike any other.

Botanical gardens are wonderful for inspiration, as well as for discovering which flowers, shrubs and trees resonate with your personal aesthetic. The United States has a bounty of botanical havens, so narrowing down the list is more difficult than you can imagine.

With that said, here are a few of my favorite Southern gardens and the best times to visit them.


Dallas Arboretum

Dallas, Texas

Best time to visit: Spring or Fall

The Arboretum and Botanical Garden is so large, so sprawling, I barely know where to begin. On each visit, I find something new to love. This garden center caters to the public with live concerts, teaching opportunities, exhibits for children and more. The gardens are a lesson in color from Crape Myrtle Allee to the Paseo de Flores and back to the Camellia Garden. The vibrant oranges and reds of Nancy Rutchik Red Maple Rill, including more than 80 varieties of Japanese maples, is a must-see in the fall. And the Dallas Arboretum is as inventive and forward thinking as it is beautiful. By the way, I’m working with the center to create a two-acre edible garden that will educate the public on growing their own edibles and cooking them, too! I’m so passionate about the Dallas Arboretum and believe it’s helping to beautify the planet. 


Garvan Woodland Gardens

Hot Springs, Ark.

Best time to visit: Spring or December

This list would not be complete without a garden from my home state. Garvan Woodland Gardens is a peaceful retreat surrounded by the Ouachita Mountains and natural hot springs. It’s especially beautiful in the spring when large swaths of tulips are in bloom.  And Garvan becomes a popular attraction in the winter with its traditional Christmas lights display. The glowing trees, bridges and structures have delighting Arkansas families for years.


Biltmore Gardens

Asheville, N.C.

Best time to visit: Spring or Fall

The Biltmore is more than a destination, it’s a legend. It’s a must-see, an architectural wonder of the United States sitting on 8,000 acres. The estate’s manicured gardens are a beautiful lesson in symmetry. Stroll along the park’s meandering trails and see Italian gardens and areas dedicated to roses, azaleas, shrubs and more. The Biltmore is simply stunning and a tribute to an older, statelier time in our country’s history.


Middleton Place

Charleston, S.C.

Best time to visit: Year-round

Middleton has the distinction of housing America’s Oldest Landscaped Gardens and also of being a National Historic Landmark. The 65-acres have been called “the most important and most interesting garden in America” and a visit here will not disappoint. The gardens are incredible – planned to be in bloom year-round – and is just like stepping back in time to a more pastoral era. The camellias have blossomed through the centuries, and pondering their history alone could occupy one for an entire afternoon.  I always feel at peace at Middleton, and it’s a must-visit for any history buff and gardener. While in Charleston, you should also make time for Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, a romantic, ethereally beautiful place where human and nature work in harmony, which also has a deep history to explore.


Monticello

Charlottesville, Va.

Best time to visit: Spring

Hardly any place has inspired me more than Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. I feel a certain kinship with him and his approach to gardening. My own vegetable garden and approach to design was modeled after Monticello and Mt Vernon, and those eagle-eyed visitors to Moss Mountain Farm typically spot his influence in the details. I feel we have so much to learn from our forefathers, and Monticello is a wonderful place to get a peek into history and be inspired to work more seamlessly with nature.


Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, Va.

Best time to visit: Spring

Another home and garden that heavily influenced my design principles is George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The red-roofs of my farm are a nod to Washington’s timeless aesthetic as well as the accoutrements in my acre garden and the circle drive in front of my home. But enough about me; Washington’s gardens were natural, but walkable. And he loved his large lawn and flower-lined pathways. The grounds of Mount Vernon were an informal take on the traditional English garden. He also focused on the plants and trees that were native to his area – a more practical approach that continues to inspire me today.


Green Animals Topiary Garden

Portsmouth, RI

Best time to visit: Spring or Summer

Yes, Rhode Island isn’t exactly in the South, but I had to include a topiary garden in this list. They’re so whimsical and wondrous, and this one is set on seven acres, though the topiary section is part of a larger area which includes vegetable and herb gardens and orchards and the Victorian-style home. Featuring 80 pieces of topiary, including large animals, birds, ornamental designs and geometric figures, the gardens are sure to thrill and delight small children. I’m especially fond of the giant elephant and the bears. Oh my!  Some might turn their noses up at topiary, but this garden form always makes me smile.


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