I’ve walked away from lots of famous gardens. One spring a couple of years ago, I visited my friend Felicity in Virginia. I took the train from Philadelphia in late April. I was excited I was finally going to see Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Felicity picked me up at the train station in Fredericksburg.
“I want to pick those lilacs for the table tonight,” she said and pointed to several thick bushes at the end of the platform. Yes, we stole them. Bunches of sweet, just opened blooms. Felicity and I were college roommates and spent our junior year together in England. She’s always been the one who was inspired to do things like pilfer lilacs or cover cakes with tiny roses.
It was almost Garden Week in Virginia and we drove slowly back to her house outside of Charlottesville. We stopped at Stratford Plantation where you could look over rolling fields and see the Potomac. The gardens had pleached pear trees and graveled walks. We were almost the only ones there. The next day we decided to walk up the new trail to Monticello. It’s about two miles up the winding hill to where Jefferson perched his famous house and gardens. We walked fast in the morning air, our bagels for lunch in a paper bag. Sometimes we were suspended on a wooden bridge above woods where redbuds were blooming.
It was hot and by the time we got to the top we were hungry. We sat and ate our bagel sandwiches with a group of kids who were fiddling with cell phones and iPods. Once at the ticket windows, though, we realized the tour of Monticello was expensive and we couldn’t just walk through the gardens. There were little buses full of people leaving for the house and grounds. All around us was construction. It wasn’t what I had imagined. I could almost see the rows of Hotspur peas and Brown Dutch lettuce, the exotic artichokes.
“Do really want to do this today? I asked Felicity. “It’s really expensive and it’s going to be really crowded.”
“Hmmm,” she said, “I think you used to be able to just walk around.”
So we turned from the ticket counter and walked down the hill. I didn’t feel sad. Soon, after a short drive, we were walking around the University of Virginia, cutting through the little gardens there behind the faculty houses and the rows of rooms designed by Jefferson for students.
On the way home on the train I thought about other gardens that I’ve left—just as I was about to enter the gate. Once, I was in Wales with my husband and son and we drove to Bodnant Garden. I had read about the rhododendrons and the terraced gardens, the spires of conifers from China. We pulled into the parking lot in our big rental car and sat there for a while.
“Do you really want to go to this garden? There are buses full of people all over the place,” my husband said.
“But I do really want to go,” I said. “We’re here.”
My son who was ten was sleeping in the car. We were on our way to my friend Irene’s house. The café was crowed and the buses kept pulling up as we waited. “Oh, let’s keep on going,” I said, and we did and pulled out of the parking lot fast.
I had already passed by another famous garden on the border of Wales and England, one that we had missed years before. We were always there at the wrong time. I vowed, though, that someday I would see the topiary of Powis Castle. Closer to home I’ve turned up several chances to see Chanticleer. We drove out from Philadelphia one spring day for the Horticultural Society’s party for new members, but once again the carloads of people discouraged us and we sped away for home.
I think my favorite gardens aren’t famous at all. I love the fields of wild flowers in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, so thick you step on Indian paintbrush and gentians as you walk. Or my friend’s garden in Wales with ordered rows of leeks and lettuce bordered by berry bushes or the tiny garden I saw in Switzerland, a wedge of rows of tiny lettuce plants just poking up on the steep hill. One famous garden, though, that I wouldn’t walk away from is Alexander Pope’s garden in Twickenham with its decorated tunnel and grotto filled with stalagmites. Now that would be something.