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The South’s Not So Secret Gardens

The South is known for its lush vegetation, beautiful gardens and ornate estates. On tours of the South’s most intriguing gardens, travelers get a taste of all of that and then some.

If you have horticulture or history lovers in your group, plan to include some of these great gardens on your next trip through the South.

State Botanical Garden of Georgia

Athens, Georgia

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. It started out as a place to see different plants native to Georgia as well as a botany learning center.

“We are the nation’s oldest land grant institution at the University of Georgia, so we have very strong agriculture, forestry and horticulture programs,” said Connie Cottingham, public relations and special events manager for the botanical garden. “I think it started out supporting that and being just a beautiful place for visitors. We have grown to really embrace conservation and how to propagate different native plants, how to get them into gardens and what the benefits are, preserving them and reestablishing lost populations.”

Visitors stroll through 313 acres of themed gardens and hike through natural woodlands along the river. The gardens have about 225,000 visitors a year but expect that number to jump within the next two years when the new children’s garden opens in 2019.

“That is our new development,” Cottingham said. “There is so much programming with it that will teach children about nature, and the flora and fauna of Georgia, and the geography and geology of Georgia, and our history.”

The children’s garden will be very hands-on, allowing children to get their hands dirty planting and harvesting different plants and roots. They also can walk through the bones of a 100-year-old cypress tree and climb into a forest play area.

The gardens are also a great place to have a picnic or listen to a concert. The center also features a tropical conservatory where visitors can learn about orchids and the medicinal and food value of tropical plants.

Cheekwood Estate and Gardens

Nashville, Tennessee

Cheekwood was built in 1929 as the home of Leslie and Mable Cheek, who amassed a large fortune after the sale of Leslie’s family grocer business. The coffee division of his company became Maxwell House coffee, and that is the only type of coffee served in the estate’s cafe today. When building the home, the Cheeks hired Bryant Fleming, a famous landscape architect, to incorporate the landscape into the design of the home. About eight miles outside Nashville on 55 acres, the property adjoins the Warner Parks, giving visitors a sense that they are in the country.

When visitors look out the windows of the mansion, it is “trees as far as the eye can see,” said Caroline Jeronimus, communications manager at Cheekwood. “There are no buildings or traffic lights in sight. My compliments to the architect for thinking of that.”

The 36-room mansion overlooks the botanical gardens. The third floor of the mansion has gallery space that features a variety of traveling exhibitions. On the second floor, visitors can tour the family’s library, dining room, drawing room and morning room.

The gardens themselves comprise a mix of historic and new, with a boxwood garden that surrounds the family reflecting pool, a color garden to show off the flowers of the season, a dogwood garden and a Japanese garden.

“I think our gardens are what draw people in the most,” said Jeronimus. “We have 11 distinct gardens, and they are all so different and unique and have such different offerings. The gardens are so pristine.”

Cheekwood is best known for how it incorporates art into its gardens. It also holds concerts and festivals on its grounds throughout the year.

Biltmore House and Gardens

Asheville, North Carolina

The gardens surrounding George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House estate are more than 100 years old. He began buying up land for his estate in 1888 and hired Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the most renowned American landscape architects, to help design it.

Visitors to the gardens get to see the amazing mansion Vanderbilt created, with 175,000 square feet, as well as wander 8,000 acres of formal and informal gardens. The Conservatory, designed by Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt and completed in 1895, is an architectural wonder in its own right. The brick-and-glass structure is split into four main rooms housing a variety of tropical and exotic plans, including palms and orchids.

Visitors who don’t want to wander too far from the house can enjoy the Library and South terraces. The Library Terrace is shaded by an arbor of wisteria and trumpet creeper vines and has an unobstructed view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The four-acre Walled Garden features flowerbeds planted in a style popular in the 1800s called bedding out. Two arbors serve as its spine, and its beds feature seasonal flowers and a butterfly garden. Biltmore Gardens also has rose, spring and shrub gardens. The Italian Garden has three formal water gardens filled with Victorian lilies, water lilies, lotuses and papyrus and features classical statuary. The 15-acre Azalea Garden has one of the country’s largest collections of native azaleas.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens

Crestwood, Kentucky

The gardens at Yew Dell got their start in the 1940s. The owner of the property, Theodore Klein, was internationally known as a plantsman and an expert in his field of American holly and yew. He built a farm there, as well as formal gardens, including a topiary garden, an English walled garden and a serpentine garden. When he passed away in 1998, gardeners and landscapers in the area were afraid the farm would be developed, so they formed a nonprofit organization to refurbish the property and the gardens.

“When we first started, our board members — some who are on the board to this day — would come out, make sandwiches and work all day long tearing down vines and disassembling buildings that had fallen in,” said Jackie Gulbe, marketing and events director for Yew Dell Botanical Gardens. “Blood and sweat went into it in the beginning to see what there was to work with.”

The castle on the property, which was the Kleins’ pool house, was an obvious building to save for special events, but the volunteers also discovered the ruins of formal gardens that were just engulfed in vegetation. The gardens are spread over 60 acres, and hundreds of volunteers helped reclaim the Sunken Garden, which is a rock garden with alpine plants, and a secret garden that Klein built for his wife. The fairy forest is home to ferns, conifers, evergreens and tiny fairy houses, and the gardens have one of the largest collections of hellebores and hostas in the country.

Huntsville Botanical Garden

Huntsville, Alabama

The population of Huntsville exploded in the 1950s with the coming of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The boom prompted city leaders to augment the cultural attractions in the area. They settled on a botanical garden. The land for the garden was leased from Redstone Arsenal, a U.S. Army post nearby, and with the help of many volunteers, some of whom were retired rocket scientists, the gardens opened in 1988.

A work in progress, the facility has 11 distinct gardens and numerous trails, including a birding trail. Visitors can enjoy the fern glade, the children’s garden, the garden railway, the aquatic garden, the herb garden and the butterfly house. In 2017, the garden opened a new visitor center, which has helped the gardens become a major wedding destination.

“It’s a beautiful facility that is open and airy and has three new rental areas in it for people to do receptions and weddings, and a gift shop that is twice the size of the previous one,” said Carol Casey, vice president of communications and programming for the Huntsville Botanical Garden. “It’s just beautiful. People love to come see the building.”

The garden couldn’t function without its volunteers. With 112 acres, the garden has a relatively small staff. Different gardening societies have adopted sections of the gardens, and their members volunteer to plant them and keep them tended.

The garden raises money through events like the Galaxy of Lights display during the holidays and the Chinese Lantern Festival in the spring.