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Hitting the Rails

I love visiting the High Line when I go to New York City. I’ve meandered through this amazing park in the winter and in the summer and am confident it is beautiful in every season. Once home to the New York Central Railroad, the elevated railway turned garden was set to be demolished. Fortunately, a motivated and visionary Chelsea resident took the lead and set up a foundation to transform one and a half miles of the abandoned railway into a recreational space. As the New York Times said, the ‘frog of the railroad was to become a prince of a park.” The High Line has been open for ten years and currently includes fifteen different planting zones and over 100,000 plants inspired by the wild landscape that once grew on the abandoned site.

Imagine my excitement when I learned my home city, Philadelphia, was opening its own rail park inspired by the High Line. The first quarter mile of the three mile park opened in June of 2018 and is situated on the obsolete railways of two rail lines that serviced the popular Reading Terminal Market in Center City.

Philadelphia Rail Park

The first phase of the Philadelphia Rail Park invites visitors to stroll through an industrial part of the city

Philadelphia Rail Park

One of the unique features of the Rail Park is this metal wall highlighting Philadelphia based companies

Philadephia Rail Park

When you need a rest you can relax on a swing and take in the sights and sounds of the city below

Philadelphia Rail Park

While dogs are welcome, they are encouraged not to water the plants.

Philadelphia Parks and Rec commissioner, Kathryn Ott Lovell commented that the park “will connect neighborhoods during a time when our country needs to be connected and that’s the great power of parks.” I couldn’t agree more. Gardens and landscaped public spaces have the amazing ability to transform our attitudes, lift our spirits and bring us together as a community. If you are able to visit either of these parks I encourage you to do so. I visited Philly’s Rail Park last month and left inspired and wanting more as I experienced my adopted home town from a unique perspective.

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Global Inspiration

I make it a point to seek out gardens when I travel. Quite honestly I can’t help myself as I find inspiration in every garden I visit. During a recent trip to Zurich, Switzerland after a rigorous five day hiking trip in the countryside, I meandered through the small botanic garden located adjacent to the University of Zurich. Locals seemed to enjoy the small space as much as tourists and I can’t blame them since access to the garden is free to all.

Zurich Botanic Garden

Enjoying a view of the biospheres from a shady spot

Biospheres contained tropical and desert specimens, while a water garden featured lily pads reminiscent of what you would see at Philadelphia area gardens like Chanticleer and Longwood Gardens. A woodland setting provided shade perfect for reading or enjoying an afternoon snooze.

Zurich Botanic Garden

The lily pad garden

Zurich Botanic Garden

Inside the tropical biosphere

Display areas highlighted plant material for residential landscapes. As in the United States and in other parts of the word, use of native plant material was recommended to attract pollinators and to support the environment.

Zurich Botanic Garden

A pollinator habitat

I noticed that those maintaining the garden were not quick to deadhead or remove spent blooms, instead leaving them for ornamentation. My impression was that the naturalistic plant movement was as alive in Zurich as it was across the globe.

Zurich Botanic Garden

Seed heads added interest

Zurich Botanic Garden

A naturalistic border flanked the stairway

While it didn’t take long to visit the approximately five acre garden, I left relaxed and refreshed. I related to the space on many levels and particularly liked the statue of the woman holding her foot; I felt her pain after hiking ten miles a day in the Alps. I too needed a foot rub!

Zurich Botanic Garden

I felt her pain after my hiking trip!

When you have the opportunity to visit a public or private garden, take it. I promise you will be inspired by something whether that’s a structure, sculpture, design or plant.

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Beautiful Gardens Everywhere

“Nothing stirs the soul and inspires the mind quite like a beautiful garden.” That’s how Alan Titchmarshbegins the first episode of my new favorite Netflix series Love Your Garden. I can relate to Alan’s statement as I have been inspired by many gardens in my lifetime, taking impressions and ideas with me and implementing them in my own landscape in a way that soothes my soul.

I’ve made it a practice to visit public gardens when I travel, which I think is a spectacular way to explore a new place, while getting a sense of the garden style and plantings that are typical of an area.There are always takeaways that get tucked inside my mind for later use whether that’s a combination of plants, a design for a sitting area or a way to attract wildlife to your garden. How do I decide which gardens to visit? The book 1001 Gardens to See Before You Die identifies places to visit all over the world. You can also join a local plant society like the Garden Conservancy or the Hardy Plant Society to gain access to private gardens in your area or the area where you are traveling. Or simply search the internet to see what’s nearby.

This year I have already visited three spectacular public gardens including the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, the Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Biltmore Estate Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina. 

Desperate to escape the Northeast winter before Nor’easter number four hit, I hopped on a plane to Phoenix in March. After a lovely day hiking, my friend and I sauntered around the Desert Botanic Gardens at dusk for a magical display. 

A glass exhibit by Chihuly welcomed us and perfectly echoed the natural cactus in the landscape.

Chihuly’s sculptures looked like real cactus plants

While many of the 20,000 plants on display were not applicable to my northeast climate, the pairing of fine textured plants with those that have bolder foliage proved to be a winning combination. 

Feathery textures combined with broad-based foliage

The concept of a shade garden in Arizona made me laugh. Clearly, gardeners were challenged in this department as this area of the 50 acre landscape was not thriving.

Shade gardening in Arizona?

An inspirational quote caused me to pause and reflect while the borrowed views of the distant mountains provided a calming focal point.

So true!


Borrowed views are fantastic

In every part of the country Mother Nature gives us something to ponder.  A rare mutation of the saguaro cactus known as a crested cactus could be observed from all angles.

A crested cactus

Naturalistic plantings are all the rage in the United States. Proponents recommend removing manicured lawns and installing native grasses instead. Clearly Arizona was on board with this trend.


A naturalistic planting

The importance of color in a garden is universal.  Here the repetition of the rust color in the wall and the plant material created a peaceful atmosphere.

Complementary colors in action

Next up was Omaha, Nebraska in May and a visit to the Lauritzen Gardens. The majority of the plantings were dormant, but the bones of the garden told the story. Sometimes I think you see more when you visit a garden in the winter as you notice features and structures you might otherwise overlook like a planter that’s built into a wall or a poignant message on a bench. 


This planter was part of the surrounding wall
Another meaningful quote


The power of a conservatory is apparent during the winter months. During our visit the tropical conservatory included an art exhibit called ‘Metamorphosis’ featuring birds and aquatic creatures formed out of plastic, the ultimate in recycling. The exhibit was not only a feast for the eyes, but also a statement about becoming better stewards of our environment. 

A jellyfish made entirely of recycled plastic

Also in the conservatory were roses left a bit unkempt, their petals forming a carpet on the top of the wall. There was even an elephant in the room — and he was a water feature!

I appreciated the lack of clean up in the rose department
An adorable elephant water feature

The last garden I visited had been on my bucket list for many years. The Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home, was the ultimate destination. The gardens, both formal and informal, were bursting with color. Of course this was the intention of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, considered to be the father of landscape architecture. Based on information from my friend’s fitness device, we walked eight miles of trails in the garden from the azalea garden, to the meadow, to the rose garden. I savored every inch!


The blinding colors of the blooming azaleas


While the rose garden’s hundreds of plants weren’t in bloom, the Chinese wisteria was and it put on quite a show visually and with its intoxicating fragrance. 

The well trained wisteria

Biltmore also had a conservatory that masterfully combined colors and textures into a feast for the eyes. 

A lovely composition in the conservatory

In contrast to the formal gardens, the natural areas like the meadow and Bass Pond showed how depth of field plays a role in a successful design, with plantings in the foreground and in the distance. I also loved how the Biltmore Estate emphasized bloom time. They even had a daily exhibit showing what was blooming in the garden. 

Bass Pond with a Calycanthus shrub in the foreground


Biltmore’s daily display of what’s blooming in the garden


I have a few more trips planned this year and have purchased tickets to multiple gardens tours. I’m sure each and every garden I see will be beautiful in its own way and inspire me in some way. I encourage you to visit gardens when you travel or even those in your own town. Celebrate the diversity of the landscape on this little planet we share. What a great opportunity to combine exercise, relaxation, education and a cultural outing into a memorable and potentially life-changing experience.