The USA and Canada cover nearly every climate zone, from tropical through Mediterranean to cool temperate, and both hot and frozen deserts - a sobering plant hardiness range of Zones 0-13. Gardeners face every challenge from heavy winter snow falls to searing summer temperatures, and areas of high rainfall (over 2000mm/80 inches annually) to almost zero rainfall.
Gardens to see and visit in the USA and Canada cover a wonderful diversity of gardens, from xerophytic desert cactus gardens and dry Mediterranean perennial gardens in the west to lush cool-climate gardens and spectacular fall foliage in the east, and subtropical gardens of palms and colourful foliage in the southeast.
Regional Garden Travel Guide to USA and Canada
USA gardening history and traditions
America has a long gardening tradition, starting with 16th century Spanish settlers in the south east followed by English, Dutch and French settlers in the early 17th century who brought plants from Europe but also, as exploration and settlement pushed inland, collected the many unfamiliar useful and beautiful plants they found in this New World. Several of these were soon exploited commercially, such as tobacco, corn and cotton.
By the mid 1600s, English style gardens were being planted in north-eastern USA, the Dutch were growing flowers and there were large gardens surrounding cotton and tobacco plantations gardens, worked by slaves. In 1639, the Jamestown colony in Virginia required large landholders to plant orchards and gardens.
Throughout the 18th century, new public parks and gardens were established along the eastern coast. Middleton Place in Charleston South Carolina, considered to be America’s first landscaped garden, was begun in 1741, and notable public figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson developed significant gardens, both for pleasure and produce.
After Louisiana was purchased from the French in 1803, westward expansion began in earnest, bringing with its waves of new migrants from Europe who brought diverse gardening styles. The idea of the ‘American Dream’ – having land of your own – encouraged the spread of ornamental landscape gardening as a way of expressing both ownership and individualism.
The grand-daddy of all public parks, Central Park in New York City was commissioned in 1858, designed by Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.
During the early 1860s, the Civil War which raged across eastern America destroyed many ornamental gardens, particularly those surrounding large plantations in the south. After the war, rebuilding and renewed prosperity in the late 19th century saw the development of many new formally laid-out ‘Victorian style’ private and public gardens and the importation of exotic new plants and garden styles from Japan, China and the Middle East. There was also a renewed appreciation of the natural landscape with USA’s first national park created at Yellowstone.
In the early 20th century there was a move to more naturalistic and romantic garden styles associated with the Arts and Crafts movement that was flourishing in architecture and decorative arts. Flower gardens, pergolas, rustic ornamentation and garden ‘rooms’ spread throughout America’s home gardens.
Unlike Europe, American gardening and public landscaping was largely untouched by the destruction of WW1 and flourished through an era of great prosperity until the 1940s. The American Horticultural Society and the Garden Club of America were founded and many greenbelt garden suburbs developed. In the west, new climate-appropriate gardening styles evolved based on Spanish and Italian gardens that used dry subtropics plants, succulents and palms.
During WW2 many gardens were redeveloped as produce ‘Victory’ gardens but returned to their more ornamental style during the 1950s. A huge housing boom meant that many Americans now had their own suburban dream home with its pristine, well watered front lawn and private backyard with paved patio. Many USA housing estates still require their residents to meticulously maintain a verdant front lawn. In 1955, Californian designer Thomas Church produced his highly influential book ‘Gardens Are for People’ which promoted gardens designed for outdoor living with paved patios, pergolas, swimming pools and barbecues – a style that was to influence American garden design into the late 20th century.
In the past few decades, the ‘New American Garden’ style has evolved to challenge the dominance of gardens filled with lawn and carefully pruned shrubs by using perennials to create naturalistic, flower-filled gardens of great seasonal change. Oehme and Van Sweden have become two of the world’s most influential landscape designers of the past 20 years.
Canadian gardening history and traditions
Canada’s European-style gardens began with the gardening traditions brought by the first French migrants, such as the potager garden. Many of these earliest gardens were those of religious communities, growing food but also providing places for prayer and contemplation. New settlers began to grow the plants they saw being cultivated by the indigenous Huron tribes, such as beans, maize and squash, and naturalists and plant collectors began to take back specimens of Canadian flora to Europe, such as Achillea (yarrow) and Solidago (goldenrod).
The British invasion in the mid 18th century brought with it the English natural landscape style of picturesque gardens with lakes and lawns, combined with the American influence of Frederick Olmstead, adopted by many wealthy home owners whose fortunes came from fur trading and timber. This was followed by the Victorian preference for gardenesque, with more formal arrangements of brightly-coloured annuals, straight paths, fountains and ponds. Early 20th century gardens picked up the new Beaux-Arts fashion for less structured gardens. In British Columbia in western Canada, Chinese and Japanese gardens styles became popular.
In the Canadian prairies, the short growing season and long distances encouraged home owners to grow their own produce and necessitated adapting the plant palette to one that could survive long and extremely cold winters. New cold-hardy hybrids were developed from the 1920s to expand the range of suitable plants, including roses, lilies and crab apples.
More recently, Canadian gardeners have also embraced the ‘new wild’ movement of meadow and perennial gardening.
Best times to visit USA and Canada gardens
Many garden tours of the USA and Canada are timed for September-October to experience the vivid fall colours, particularly of New England and Quebec. Unlike Europe, eastern North America has many deciduous forest trees that change to scarlet, red and burgundy, as well as yellows and oranges, giving it the most intense autumn/fall colours you will see.
Spring is also a peak time, when the acid green of new foliage and the proliferation of blossom trees, flowering bulbs and herbaceous perennials decorate many open gardens.
In the western states, spring through to mid-summer is an ideal time to experience flowering meadow perennials.
In south-eastern USA, you can enjoy late spring to early summer when the cities of South Carolina are bright with jacaranda, crepe myrtle, bougainvillea and fragrant bull bay magnolia and, further south in Florida, many of the subtropical gardens will be looking their best from late summer through early autumn/fall and even into winter.
Getting around to see gardens in USA and Canada
With its vast distances and well-developed motorways, with the exception of the bigger cities, hiring a car and driving is by far the easiest way of seeing American and Canadian gardens, or booking on to a garden tour. Many garden tours now include cruises, such as along the Hudson River and the Canadian lakes.
Gardens to visit in USA
– see Garden Guide to USA (under construction)
Gardens to visit in Canada
– see Garden Guide to Canada (under construction)
USA and Canada garden shows and events
Unlike Britain, Australia or New Zealand, most USA and Canada garden shows, especially in the colder zones, are held indoors often in early in spring, when gardeners are desperate for winter to be over. Many of the bigger shows, like the Philadelphia Flower Show have large display gardens, as well as the usual plants and gardening products.
A notable exception is the Jardins des Métis International Garden Festival at Reford Gardens in Québec, which shows a large outdoor collection of contemporary and artistic gardens from June to September.
Canada Garden Shows, Festivals and Events
Canada Blooms – March
BC Home and Garden Show
Home and Garden Show Toronto – March
Nuit Blanche Toronto – Oct
International Garden Festival Québec – June-Sept
USA Garden Shows, Festivals and Events
Great Gardens and Landscaping Symposium, Vermont – April
Nantucket Garden Festival – July
Philadelphia Flower Show – early March
New Jersey Home and Garden Show – March
Boston Flower and Garden Show – March
Chicago Flower and Garden Show – March
Winter Landscape Design Symposium, PA – Jan
Maryland Home and Garden Show – March
Wisconsin Garden Expo – Feb
Home and Garden Show Cleveland Ohio – Feb
Texas Home and Garden Show- Feb
San Antonio Fall Home and Garden – Oct
Nashville Lawn and Garden Show – Feb
Dallas Blooms – Feb-April
Kansas City Garden Symposium – Feb
St Louis Home and Garden Show – Feb
Oklahoma Home and Garden Show – Jan
Salt Lake Home and Garden Fest – March
Northwest Flower and Garden Show, Seattle – Feb
Portland Fall Garden Show – Oct
Portland Garden and Patio Show
Oregon Yard, Patio and Garden Show – Feb
San Francisco Garden Show – March
San Francisco Botanical Garden Summer Fair – August
Fresno Home and Garden Show – March
California Home and Garden Show – Feb
Sunset Celebration Weekend – June
New York. The swathes of concrete and glass; the vast canyons formed by major streets cutting through the highest of tall towers. This is where dogs and cats are declawed to deal with life inside apartments and population density is amongst the highest in the world, yet there are still pockets of green delight.
My first walk in the morning light was a revelation, moving from spontaneous vegetation and minimal intervention through striking contrasting swathes of native grasses, flowering shrubs and low ground covers
When thinking of river cruising with garden visiting, most gardeners look to Europe but in September 2016 I will be hosting my second trip for Botanica up the rivers, lakes and canals that connect the USA and Canada.
I am about to jump on a plane and head off to France to lead a tour of gardens and châteaux of Normandy and the Loire Valley and if you haven’t booked it’s a bit late now! But the idea of travelling across the world to see gardens and gardening that I may well have […]
Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, USA is a sheer delight to visit. It’s one of those places that’s so good that it’s hard to pick a highlight. However, one of my favourite displays was the water lily feature. Once you’ve wound your way through the amazing conservatory and caught your breath again (yes, it’s that good), […]
The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried when Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD79, clearly made an impression on 19-year-old American J Paul Getty, soon to become an oil tycoon, when he visited Italy in 1912. Almost 60 years later he built a museum at Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles to display his collection of antiquities – […]
The state of Pennsylvania in the USA is a treasure trove for horticulturists. With 30 public gardens within about an hour of the capital Philadelphia, it’s hard to know which one to visit first. Its claim of “more gardens than anywhere on the continent” seemed pretty apt as I travelled around enjoying the lush beauty […]
July in New York City. Extreme heat and humidity, heavy traffic, surging crowds. What to do? Where to go? Art galleries seemed a good choice, being air-conditioned. But I could only take so many! So I headed out, and around. First, to Central Park. Spacious, green and shady. And hot, hot, hot.
Everyone responds to the gardens of Juan Grimm – leading South American designer – and I often wonder at their beauty and the reasons for their success. It is in his plantings and landscaping that we see how he harmonises with nature. In the garden at Melipilla, about an hour south of Santiago in Chile, […]
My neighbour, artist Ros Goody, has the best crop of passionfruit ever this year, which is odd as her vine, possibly self-sown, grows under and around a jacaranda. It is very shaded and never watered. It is only fertilised if its roots have roamed into a near by garden bed, although there is plenty of […]
If you had to choose one place in the United States that you felt all Americans should visit, one landscape or landmark representative of the “American ethos”, what would it be? I started pondering that question last week after reading Catherine Stewart’s story about her pilgrimage to Uluru (more familiar to us Americans as Ayers Rock), the giant monolith […]
What do 10,000 horticulturists and a heatwave have in common? They can all be found in Columbus, Ohio each July. The OFA Short Course expo is considered the melting pot of the American horticultural industry. For the past 84 years the biggest plant show in the USA has drawn a vast collection of suppliers, producers, breeders, […]