Have you considered visiting a public garden? Are you unsure of the benefits such a visit might offer? How should you best prepare to gain the most from your time investment and make the outing enjoyable? Where can you find public gardens in your area?

The American Public Garden Association defines a public garden as: “…an institution that maintains collections of plants for the purposes of public education and enjoyment, in addition to research, conservation, and higher learning. It must be open to the public and the garden’s resources and accommodations must be made open to all visitors…”


Pointers to public garden web sites in the fifty states as well as Washington, DC can be found via this link.


The Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina offers several world class gardens including the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill or the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham. We also have the Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden and the WRAL-TV Azalea Gardens.


How do I get the most from a garden visit?

Start with the garden’s web site.

Familiarize yourself with the garden from the comfort of your couch or while sipping your tea on the patio. Be certain you have directions and know where to park. Most garden web sites offer maps showing the location of the garden sections along with such necessities as the restrooms. Print a copy of the map to guide your garden stroll. Although public gardens often provide complimentary maps near the entrance, the supply may run low on a busy day.

Learn the garden rules to avoid disappointment. Is there an approved picnic area? Are there restrictions on photography and the use of photos? And finally, know the rules regarding pets. Most public gardens prohibit all save service animals so leave Fido at home rather than locked in the hot car.


Pack supplies.

Charge your smartphone if that is your camera of choice. Otherwise include your camera, any must-have lenses and equipment, and a spare battery.

Joe Sartore, National Geographic photographer and photography instructor for Great Courses, observed tourists on a whale watching expedition. The camera-laden men and women were so busy videoing the whales they missed their chance to touch one. Sartore urges his students, “Put the camera down, and pet the whales!”  Don’t be so engrossed in capturing a photo of every plant that you miss the garden.

Wear comfortable walking shoes. Save your heels and sandals for another venue. Closed-toe shoes with socks keep gravel and wood chips on the paths.

Breezy clothes in lighter colors will keep you cooler than darker colors. Don’t forget sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. Skin cancer is no joke typed the man who has endured multiple surgeries to remove basal cell and reconstruct the nose and ear.

I often carry a backpack in the garden as I do on a hike to tote water bottles as well as some hard candy to provide energy if needed. The pack has a first aid kit with lifesaving band aids for the inevitable scrape or scratch. If the clouds are brewing a storm collapsible rain coats fit in the bottom of the pack.

Be aware that gardens have flowers, and flowers attract bees. If you have allergies to bee stings or insect bites, please pack your EpiPen or Benadryl or whatever you may need.

Now, be a hero and pack a cooler with iced drinks in the trunk of the car. Cold condensation-dripping water bottles, soft drinks, or juice boxes coupled with chips or pretzels for nibbling on the way home will add the final touch to what proved to be a great time in the garden.

Grandpa and child

Fern and Grandpa enjoy JC Raulston Arboretum.

Consider the children.

The attention span of small children (and husbands) may be short. Reading each tag in the garden may appeal to your sense of adventure, but for those who butterfly that glacial pace seems like torture. Move through the garden at a speed that accommodates all levels of involvement.

Hydrate the kids! Those water bottles in the backpack can save an expedition on a steamy summer day. Insist on sips not guzzles, and threaten physical harm for anyone who backwashes into the water supply.

Carry a spritz bottle filled with water to mist cherubic faces. Give them a good squirt once in a while, and turn the entire visit into an adventure in giggling.

Child walking.

Fern is ready to explore the garden.

Leave no trace.

Please don’t litter. Carry used gum, wrappers, bits of paper, and anything else you want to dispose of to a trash can. A plastic grocery bag tucked into the backpack can serve as a collection point until the tour ends.

Stay on the paths. Many public gardens are maintained by volunteers. They take pride in their work and want us to have the fullest experience on our visit. Respect their work and keep footprints out of the planting beds.

Do not pick flowers, take cuttings, or remove seed pods from the gardens. The trees are not for climbing. Leave the gardens as you found them so the next visitor has an enjoyable experience.

What benefits will I glean from a garden visit?

Ideas for the home garden.

The garden vistas, designed by trained professionals, offer insight for the home garden. Mature plants in contrasts and combinations help the gardener define personal tastes and “must have” arrangements. Visitors see plants in a natural habitat rather than the artificial ambiance of the shelf at the garden shop.

Cultivar information.

With easy-to-read cultivar information on the plant tags and possibly on the web site, the public garden demonstrates specific plants that work best in the area.

Local favorites.

Gardeners who move from monoculture lawn to permaculture gardening suddenly care which plants draw bees and butterflies.  A stroll through the plantings at the public garden allows the gardener to see examples of plants that benefit the winged friends.

Exercise in a healthy environment.

Stroll through the garden as many times as you like. Reverse the order on the second lap and proceed backwards from the first circuit. Zigzag from side to side. No matter the direction each step will reveal new wonders. Take time to sniff the air and enjoy fresh oxygen coupled with the healthy fragrances only a garden can generate.

Plant sales.

Sometimes the garden might offer a plant sale table. For a reasonable price the visitor may take home a new plant. Proceeds benefit the public garden.

And finally…

Speak to any volunteers or staff you may encounter working among the plantings. Let them know how much you appreciate their hard work. Look for the contribution box near the exit, and consider leaving a donation as your way of supporting the garden. And finally, tell your friends how much fun you had in the garden. Invite them to join you on the next visit.

Man and child walking

Fern and Grandpa exploring a path at JC Raulston Arboretum

The photos in this article are courtesy of Shawn Rae Nichols. The plants can be viewed in real time at the JC Raulston Arboretum.