America's finest! Monty Don has travelled the States in search of its greatest gardens

- and here he shares the best with you:

  • Monty Don spent six weeks in the US filming his new gardening series for BBC2

  • His exploration included Monticello in Virginia and the High Line in New York

  • British gardening expert revealed how US gardens have changed over the years

Last year I visited the United States three times, filming for my American Gardens series, which starts this Friday on BBC2. I crammed in as many gardens as possible in that enormous country in my total of six weeks there.

But it’s not until you start to really travel around the States that you appreciate just how big and varied it is.

So to expect to find a definitive American garden was always a long shot – yet that’s what I set out to do.

Of course, there’s the archetypal suburban garden, portrayed in a thousand TV series, with the house fronted by an open lawn that runs down to the pavement and has no fence or hedge between it and its neighbours.

But until the late 19th century most people either lived in cities or out on the frontier, often miles from anyone.

British gardening expert Monty Don (pictured) revealed a selection of the US gardens he visits in his new BBC2 series

The nearest most city dwellers came to a garden was a park, such as Central Park in Manhattan, laid out in the 1850s, while the pioneers had endless space but not the luxury of a garden.

Then, increasingly, people began to live in suburbs, and having a lawn in front of your house meant you weren’t ‘dirt poor’.

There was also strong social pressure to show that you and your family had nothing to hide. In other words – and this still applies in many places today – being open and socially respectable was much more important than making a garden or indeed having any privacy.

But that does not mean gardens were not being made.

I started off in the southern states, visiting such gardens as Monticello in Virginia, begun in the late 18th century by perhaps America’s greatest president, Thomas Jefferson.

It’s famous for its two-acre vegetable plot – built by slaves – where Jefferson grew more than 300 varieties of vegetables.

Just outside Charleston, South Carolina, is Middleton Place, one of America’s grandest and oldest gardens, pictured, made in the 1740s by plantation owner Henry Middleton

Miami’s Vizcaya, made in the early 20th century by a Chicago combine harvester millionaire as his winter retreat and modelled, in astonishingly elaborate detail, on an Italian palazzo

Just outside the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina, is Middleton Place, one of America’s grandest and oldest gardens, made in the 1740s by plantation owner Henry Middleton.

It and the house were burnt during the Civil War but have now been restored.

Just down the road is Magnolia Gardens, which was named in a late-19th century guide book as being one of the three great wonders any visitor to the States should see – along with the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.

In both the Charleston gardens my breath was taken away by the amazing southern live oaks, Quercus virginiana, their enormous evergreen boughs festooned with hanging Spanish moss.

In Florida, I visited Miami’s Vizcaya, made in the early 20th century by a Chicago combine harvester millionaire as his winter retreat and modelled, in astonishingly elaborate detail, on an Italian palazzo.

It took more than a thousand workers to transform what was a mangrove swamp into a succession of grottos, pools, cascades and fountains, parterres and glorious flights of steps bedecked with urns.

It’s crazy but wonderful.

It was not the only crazy garden I visited. On the west coast, in a side street in Beverly Hills, Dawnridge is a small house with a modestly sized garden – but that is where the modesty ends.

Just a mile away, overlooking Los Angeles, is the ultra-modern house of multi-millionaire James Goldstein – all plate glass and steel and containing a bevy of glamorous but languid young women draped around Mr Goldstein, who, in his late 70s, was dressed in running gear.

But he’s a serious gardener and over the past 40 years has made a large jungle filled with exotic species that fall down the hillside away from the house – which he bought to give his beloved Afghan hound more space.

In the Arizona desert, where temperatures reach 50°C in the summer and they’re lucky to get 15cm of rain a year, I visited beautiful gardens featuring cacti and other desert plants.

There, the greatest luxury is shade, and the shadows cast by plants are often as important a feature as the plants themselves.

I interviewed the brilliant designer Steve Martino, who told me the secret of his desert gardens, ‘They have just four elements – water, tree, chair, wall.

And I went up to the Pacific Northwest, where superb gardens in Seattle flourish in a climate very like ours but are set in the dramatic landscape of a coastline filled with killer whales and dolphins, volcanic mountains and some of the largest stretches of forest on the planet.

It was not all big, dramatic scenery.

In New York I visited a rooftop farm in the borough of Queens which has the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop; the High Line – a public garden created along a former elevated railway; and in the Bronx a community garden where they not only grow superb vegetables but also have created one of the happiest atmospheres I’ve ever known in a garden.

Did I find the true American Garden? No.

The country is too big and too diverse for that.

But I did find an astonishing range of gardens and a freshness and enthusiasm that was deeply infectious. I can’t wait to go back and see more.

Big is better, biggest is best!

America loves a show – and the bigger the better. The largest and most extraordinary example of this is at Longwood Gardens, just outside Philadelphia, which extends to more than a thousand acres.

Yet its origins were relatively humble.

The largest and most extraordinary example of America's 'bigger is better' mentality is at Longwood Gardens, just outside Philadelphia, which extends to more than a thousand acres

It was bought in 1906 as a farm by Pierre du Pont, a wealthy local chemicals manufacturer, to save a grove of ancient trees that were to be cut down. He enlarged the house and added a conservatory.

But this was just the beginning.

Ten years later he built a new conservatory that was eventually to cover 4½ acres under glass filled with a dazzling – albeit rather garish – display of exotic plants swinging through it like a line of showgirls.

Outside, the excess gets even greater.

The meadow stretches to 90 acres, the flanking herbaceous borders are 180 metres long, the open-air theatre can accommodate 1,500 people at a sitting to watch up to 100 performers, and the main fountain garden – there are three in all – has more than 1,700 computer-controlled fountains and five miles of piping.

A million visitors a year pay £20 each to come to the garden, which accounts for its recent £70 million revamp.

A very different garden in Palm Springs, California, is also the result of extraordinary wealth and ambition.

Walter Annenberg was a media mogul owning, among other publications, TV Guide, which launched in the 1950s and at its height was selling a billion copies a year.

Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore, bought 900 acres that became California's Sunnylands in Palm Springs

He and his wife Leonore loved both Palm Springs and golf, so they bought 900 acres of empty desert and built a large house surrounded by their own private golf course, set among dozens of acres of mown grass and 6,000 trees.

The arid conditions didn’t bother him – Walter simply bought the local water company to make sure the grass was kept sprinkled and the 13 lakes filled.

Statesmen, royalty, showbusiness stars and sporting legends all came, ensuring Sunnylands became the most glamorous place for the very famous and very rich to visit.

Having sold their empire to Rupert Murdoch for £1.75 billion in 1988, the Annenbergs became among America’s greatest philanthropists, giving a huge amount of their money away.

Today Sunnylands is open to the public and is also a location for diplomatic meetings at the highest level.

The golf course is still there, and in their will the Annenbergs left a stipulation that any president of the United States had the right to play there whenever he or she liked.

So far, Mr Trump is the first president not to have taken up the offer.

This article was first published on


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