There’s a simple requirement for anyone thinking of a garden tour: do you love gardens? If so, please read on. The cultivation of plants for food long predates history. The earliest evidence for ornamental gardens, however, is seen in Egyptian tomb paintings of the 1500s BC; they depict lotus ponds surrounded by rows of acacias and palms. The other ancient gardening tradition is from Persia. Darius the Great was said to have had a “paradise garden” and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were renowned as a Wonder of the World. Persian influences extended to post-Alexander’s Greece: around 350 BC there were gardens at the Academy of Athens, and Theophrastus, who wrote on botany, was supposed to have inherited a garden from Aristotle. The most influential ancient gardens in the western world were Ptolemy’s gardens at Alexandria.
The gardening tradition brought to Rome by Lucullus. Wall paintings in Pompeii attest to elaborate development later, and the wealthiest of Romans built enormous gardens, many of whose ruins are still to be seen, such as at Hadrian’s Villa Byzantium and Moorish Spain kept garden traditions alive after the 4th century. By this time a separate gardening tradition had arisen in China, which was transmitted to Japan, where it developed into aristocratic miniature landscapes centered on ponds and separately into the severe Zen gardens of temples.
In Europe, gardening revived in Languedoc and the Ile-de-France in the 13th century, and in the Italian villa gardens of the early Renaissance. French parterres developed at the end of the 16th century and reached high development under Andre le Notre. English landscape gardens opened a new perspective in the 18th century. The 19th century saw a welter of historical revivals and Romantic cottage-inspired gardening, as well as the rise of flower gardens, which became dominant in home gardening in the 20th century, which expanded into city planning.
The gardens of the world
In every niche and corner of the planet, there are gardens open for viewing. Many gardeners today think the gardens of England and the United Kingdom are the best anywhere. Indeed, some of the world’s oldest gardens remain on the British Isles and gardening is an ancient art there. Nature provides the mild climate, rich soil, and long, long summer days that bring forth the best in plants. UK plant lovers arrange them with charm and expertise. The European Continent’s old world gardens in Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Holland all reflect the centuries old traditions of those nations.
The gardens of the United States, Australia, Costa Rica and Japan likewise reflect the national character and traditions of those nations. But keep in mind that when you go on a garden tour, regardless of your destination, you are not likely to see everything. The vast number of public and private gardens open for viewing in England alone would take months to explore.
A Tour of Garden Tours
Garden tours require advance planning and the services of a first rate travel consultant. You first need to decide what gardens you want to visit and determine the best time of the year to visit (as well as when the gardens are open). Use a tour operator with a reputation for delivering first rate programs. You can often choose a tour offering independent travel in which the tour operator lays out an itinerary and provides you with special access and a guide.
More common and affordable are group tours where several individuals seeking to view the gardens in an area travel together with a guide. Many tour providers are able to gain access to special private gardens, having developed contacts over many years. A tour operator will save the traveler time and effort by doing much of the research and planning in advance. The tour operator will typically arrange all transportation and accommodations, inns and restaurants. Their drivers know the best routes to the gardens by heart, making travel more entertaining and the logistics of moving from location to location easier to negotiate. Entry fees and other costs will be aggregated by the tour operator, typically at a rate discounted over what any individual would be able to accomplish on their own for a similar itinerary.
Tour operators typically employ guides that are very familiar with the terrain and the local gardens. Your guide will act as a contact, an expert, a translator, a chauffer and historian. Good garden tour operators place great importance in the knowledge and preparation of all their tour managers and local guides, who are of vital importance to maintain high standards. An experienced, professional and friendly tour manager should be on hand to handle tour logistics and background information on the villas, gardens and sites of interest to be visited during the tour. It’s usually best if the guides are local residents. Often, operators say, guides at garden tours become friends for life. They also are helpful if you want to plan some pre-and post-tour travel as well. Ask your travel consultant to determine if the tour operator’s protocol is for the tour guide to be tipped at the end of the tour.
If going on a group tour, consider the typical client for the tour operator. Most travelers prefer to accompany traveling companions of a similar age, travel experience and habits. Most groups are mixed ages with both male and female travelers, some traveling with companions and others as singles. Most tour operators will arrange appropriate roommates upon request or the single traveler can request private accommodations for a single-rate surcharge. Consider the pace you want to enjoy on your trip and have your travel consultant inquire about the typical itinerary day. The best tours combine travel days and free days so that you have the time to truly enjoy the area and taste for yourself the flavor that is unique to different parts of the world. Your group should be small so you have the ability to know other members and to make travel easier. Many garden tours change every year, so be sure you have an up-to-date brochure or other information detailing a possible trip.
You want your itinerary to be relaxed to allow you adequate time to visit the gardens and surrounding area. Your itinerary should also include stops in villages or towns for lunch and other meals to savor the experience of being there: the local theater, a scenic walk, village pub, or some special local attraction. The best tours focus on at least a few hidden “niches” — areas that have yet to be discovered by tourists. Often, these are gardens with few visitors that seldom open their doors to the public. Some of these hidden gardens have been owned by families for centuries, handed down from one generation to another. If a tour involves a privately owned garden, participants often get a bonus: the chance to meet with an individual who can detail the history of the garden.
Since you are on a garden tour, operators will often be booking hotels that have gardens that are an attraction by themselves. This is sometimes the case for smaller hotels, but there are a variety of well-known hotel gardens everywhere that tour participants might expect to visit. Manor houses and estates are often used as accommodations. As you and your travel consultant plan your trip, be sure to investigate the type of accommodation used by your tour operator. The cost of the trip, and more importantly the value of the trip, will greatly depend on the quality of the accommodations. Tours typically last anywhere from three to ten nights.
No doubt your tour operator will provide you with a list of clothing and gear to bring along. As usual, the best advice is to lay out everything you think you will need and then to take ½ of that to ensure you have packed light. Taking into account the climate of your ultimate destination, dress in layers. The days can start out cool and end up warm. Check the weather before you go. Always bring comfortable walking shoes as a good part of every garden tour involves a bit of walking. An umbrella is always handy, as well as a plastic bag to store a wet umbrella. Your camera should be with you at all times as you will certainly want to shoot some gardens. Many travelers like to take along a journal and pen or perhaps a tape recorder to keep notes. If you wear glasses, bring along an extra pair just in case and any prescription drugs should be packed in your carryon in their original container. Finally, sunglasses and sunscreen, as well as a good hat, are always good traveling companions.
Garden lovers are some of the most enthusiastic of travelers, and you and your traveling companions are sure to have the best of times with a little planning and the assistance of a good tour operator! Soon, you will be back home with a new appreciation for your own gardening enterprises, garnered from some of the great gardens of the world.