Garden tours are always fun. You get to see private parts of other people’s yards – and these are not just any yards.

They are properties that tour organizers believe are lovely enough that people will willingly spend $30-40 for tickets to tour. Also, the tours are usually organized by nonprofit groups as annual fundraisers, and they want people to enjoy the tours enough to return the following year.

The gardens will be in good condition, too. Our yard has been on garden tours in the past, so I know from firsthand experience that homeowners will spend a lot of extra time – and perhaps money – for extra plants, as well as ensuring their gardens have lots of blossoms, are weed-free, deadheaded, and the lawn has been mowed and the driveway and walks swept.

Not all tour-takers view these gussied-up gardens the same way.

Some will come in, look at the gardens from a distance and say to themselves: “My garden is as good as this one – if I owned an oceanfront property with three lighthouses in view, and if you ignore the weeds at my place.” But if you do it that way – and as a person who has served as a docent for the Cape Elizabeth Garden Tour, I can assure you that some people do – you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

You should head off on a garden tour prepared to learn, so you can turn some of what you see into improvements in your own garden. Bring a camera, a pen and a notebook.

Ideally, each plant would have a label giving its botanical and common name. Most gardens don’t have that kind of labeling, however. Some people think labels intrude into the beauty of the plants, so they purposefully skip them. Some people do put in labels, but they go missing. That second category applies to my wife Nancy and me. Do we step on the labels while we are weeding, and they sink into the soil? Do the chipmunks carry them away so they can build furniture in their dens? I have no idea.

If the garden doesn’t have labels, all is not lost. Ask the docent at the garden if he or she knows the plant’s name. Often they won’t, but it’s worth a try. And you can always ask others who are touring the same garden. A word of caution though: ask three different people about a plant’s name and go with the name given by a majority.

If that fails, just take a picture. I know a woman who knew she had some bare spots to fill in her gardens and went on a garden tour to figure out what plants she should get. She has no knowledge of plant names but knew what she liked from the tour and snapped pictures of those plants. She then showed the pictures to her landscaper and said, “I want these.” It was like magic when the plants showed up one day while she was off at work.

A 2012 Hidden Gardens of Munjoy Hill visitor snaps a photo. Shawn Patrick Ouellette

For those of you who don’t have a landscaper on call, take your photos to a locally owned garden center where the knowledgeable staff will identify them – in hopes that you buy a few of the plants from them.

When you’re on a garden tour, look for more than specific plants you like, though. How did the gardener mix plants to create interesting color combinations? Does the garden use rock or other hardscaping in an interesting way? Did you like that garden gnome or would you rather be gnome-free? Are there sculptures or different types of furniture that provide interest? How are the garden paths created?

And at each garden you visit, ask yourself: “What is the feature I will remember most about this garden?” If it’s the view, you’re out of luck because you can’t take that home. But if it is a specific plant or plant combination, garden art, furniture, a birdbath or bird house or the way the stones are laid in the patio or walkway, those might be something you can replicate in your own garden.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]



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