Garden Life: Cultivate an ‘open garden’ of inspiration




Midsummer is a wonderful time to visit gardens that garden owners are willing to open to the public. An “open garden” is a generous gift to a community of fellow gardeners. The only garden I can remember visiting as a child was my grandmother’s garden. Even when we moved away, we would spend holidays and summer with her in Southern California. The heady scent of roses and the sweet sugary tang of a climbing honeysuckle (Lonicera ssp.) still take me back to that place of carefree days when there was nothing more important to do than play the day away.

Every morning, in the sunny California winter, Grandma would take a tray of ice cubes out to the garden and empty the ice around the base of the hydrangeas. Her hydrangeas were the only ones in the neighborhood that I remember seeing in full summer bloom. She knew what she was doing and focused her energy on what she liked to do in the garden. When I look back on memories of that early garden, I realize what good gardening friends my grandmother and I would be today.

Nevertheless, I don’t think my grandmother would have opened her garden to visitors the way so many Northwest gardeners do today. In those days, most people gardened with more intention, growing flowers for cutting; tomatoes, lettuce and onions for household meals. The only people who opened their garden to visitors had expansive, high-end gardens that were elegant and grand compared to what we considered normal neighborhood gardens. At least, that’s what Grandma thought. If asked to do so, she would have simply said, “Now why would I want to do that?”

I can think of any number of ways to use the experience of visiting an open garden to enhance my own garden, especially in the area of garden design. One of the reasons I visit other gardens is to check out ideas that would work in my garden. I take the time to consider the work and details that go into that idea before I commit to the expense and labor involved in a garden project. Wouldn’t it be great to see the water feature of your dreams before you installed it in your garden? How about visiting half a dozen greenhouses before choosing one for your work space?

What you get out of a garden visit is really up to you. If your intention is to garner inspiration for your own garden design, visit 10 open gardens. You might visit other gardens just for the fun of it but you can also visit with the purpose of finding your own style and learning how other gardeners created their style. A garden tour is an ideal way to learn how to best use plants in the garden. It’s a great way to discover which plants you want in your garden. Don’t get hung up on terminology such as formal, informal or natural. Most plants and many garden features are interchangeable in different styles of gardens.

Do, however, keep in mind which elements you must have for a garden you can live with. Choose a selection of plants and ideas that match your enthusiasm for gardening. Take away only ideas that you really like and leave what you don’t. As you enter a garden, be aware of how it makes you feel. Does a shady reading nook fill you with delight? If so, take the time to consider how this feature is designed and where it will fit into your garden plan.

Take in elements

To get the most out of a garden tour consider looking at each element of the garden as if it were already established in your design. Does a formal, flagstone dining patio fit with your lifestyle? Do you like the herringbone brick pattern used in the walkways or would you prefer the earthy crunch of a gravel path under your feet? It can really be a delightful experience imagining that every feature in every garden you visit is a possibility in your own garden. The more gardens and garden events you visit, the better your chance of ending up with a garden that satisfies you in many ways.

My grandma made gardening look so easy. She knew what she was doing and focused on growing a few flowering shrubs and fruit trees that she truly loved. One of my strongest memories is that she had a nectarine and an apricot tree in the backyard. Nectarines are my favorite fruit to this day. Now that I think about it, Grandma actually did open her garden to family and friends, especially grandchildren. Nothing would make me happier than to go back in time and visit my grandmother’s garden again.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at