Public gardens I have known


Poppies at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. 

It used to be that the first public institution I would seek upon
arriving in a new city would be the art museum. That was when I was an art
critic and curator. Now, though I still tend to focus on museums if I’m in NYC,
in other cities, I am just as apt to locate the nearest public garden. Much like
museums, there is a hugely diverse range of sizes, types, and sensibilities in this
realm. Like museums, public gardens offer changing exhibitions as the season
progresses and different plantings come into strong focus. Like museums, public
gardens must have highly skilled and creative curating by the horticultural
professionals who plant and tend them.

At Duke.

There are public gardens where your first thoughts are: “Wow,
they sure spent a lot of money here!” and/or “I’ll never get through this place!” That’s what I
thought when I visited the wonderful Chicago Botanical Gardens, which has 385
acres on the outskirts of Chicago, 24 display gardens, and 3 native habitats.
That’s also what I thought as I sweated my way through the Sarah P. Duke
, which occupy a mere 55 acres in Durham, NC. (Note to self: never visit
southern public gardens after June.)

The Buffalo glass house in winter.

These are both major educational institutions as well as
showplaces, with attention paid to native habitats and food growing as well as
ornamental plantings. Neither is really focused on indoor conservatories; I
don’t think Duke has one, and Chicago’s is nice but minimal compared to its outdoor
plantings. (The city already has marvelous traditional glasshouses at Garfield
and Lincoln Parks.)

Buffalo gardens in winter (interior).

Then, there is your public garden, the one you can visit
every weekend. For me, this is the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.
This facility could use some improvement, but it is beautiful and has the
potential to be great, with its vintage Lord & Burnham glasshouse set in an
Olmsted park. It is a glorious winter retreat.

Sonnenberg glasshouse interior.

Finally, there are public gardens with fascinating
personal stories behind them. Often these used to be private estates. I have
visited many of these in England (I think most of their public gardens have
this history), and there are a number in the U.S. One eerily beautiful example
is Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, NY. Created 100 years ago—by a banker’s wife—as a
private paradise on 20 acres, Sonnenberg has a Queen Anne mansion, Lord & Burnham
greenhouse, water course, rock garden, rose garden, Japanese garden, and many other features,
including a working farm. Only thing was, there was no one to leave it to and
the place gradually decayed. It has now been mostly restored, but with plenty
of nooks and crannies that look frozen in time, Miss Havisham style. The glass
house is probably the most dramatically dilapidated aspect of the place. But
still beautiful. The mysterious Linwood Gardens, though smaller, is another such place, a former summer home in Pavilion., NY. It is now known for its fabulous tree peony collection—the original owner was obsessed with them. 
Sonnenberg exterior garden. 

At Linwood (I'll be reporting on the peonies later this month.)

There are plenty of public gardens like this, that still
retain the fingerprints of the private people who made and loved them, and they
are always my favorites.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. “that still retain the fingerprints of the private people who made and loved them, and they are always my favorites.”

    Yes, mine too. And sometimes in the garden that belonged to the rich man, his head gardener managed to convince the rich man that he needed a Desert and Palm garden, not just a classic British estate with long lawns and oaks.

    This is the case with the Huntington in San Marino, California. There’s the long axial lawn with the big fountain and the classical statues dragged over from Italy, but the gem of the place is the Desert garden, the world-class collection the superintendent, William Hertrich, managed to create despite a reluctant owner. Bravo!

  2. Public gardens are high priority when I visit a new city or different part of the world… This past month I visited Tuscon and then Vancouver. Two very different locales. Both have several public gardens of interest. The wildflowers were in full bloom in Tuscon and the Rhody’s were magnificent in Vancouver. Here in Denver we have a very good Botanic garden. They are currently in the process of doing some major renovation and new building. It all looks good and will allow more visitors but I am always upset when we begin to replace dirt with concrete…

  3. When I was studying art history I too used to travel first to the art museums. Now, I also seek out the public gardens in cities, but that is mostly because I was unable to continue graduate studies due to illness. Now I garden for my health but I still love to see art as well. My favorite public garden facility is the Huntington in the LA area. The new Getty is also amazing because it’s really an art museum with an amazing garden designed by artist Robert Irwin. There are so many more that I could list all over the West Coast, but the last one I must add has to be the LA County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. If you visit these gardens, don’t be surprised to be stopped by film crews too. The last time we visited, we were stopped twice during the same day at different locations. It is good to know that these activities help to fund such gems for future folks to enjoy. I say this as a Portlander (Oregon) though, where we are currently losing one of our gems due to financial problems. The amazing Berry Botanic Garden is currently up for sale. (I should also add that we have an amazing Chinese Garden in downtown Portland that is an entire city block. Since I’m a member, I must plug it too.)

  4. I hope you make it to RI and Blithewold someday. It was the family that made it such a special place. And we’re so lucky that so many people still love it. – A garden must be loved to be worth visiting!

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