Traverse City is famous for its annual cherry blossom explosion, when more than two million trees in the region’s cherry orchards burst into bloom for several weeks in mid-May. But the city and its neighbors are also a wonderland of smaller gardens.
Wander down the alleyways in the Boardman or Slabtown neighborhoods, stroll past the cottages of Leland or Old Mission, and you’ll discover little jewels of the gardener’s art. In fact, for the past 35 years the local Friendly Garden Club – which cares for many of the city’s public plantings – has been leading an annual “garden walk” each July to highlight some of the prettiest private gardens.
But you don’t have to wait for July. There are also some splendid gardens that are open to the public all season.
The sprawling 25-acre Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park is on the grounds of the Grand Traverse Commons, a former state mental asylum built in the late 19th century. It is taking shape around what was once the asylum’s farm, incorporating existing meadows, hillsides and abandoned buildings – including a pair of massive Victorian barns.
Begun in 2013, the garden is still being laid out, and each year new features are being added. About half of its acreage will remain in a natural state. Appropriately, given its history, it is being organized as a series of 19 interlocking “healing gardens” spread through the length of the property like a ribbon.
There’s already a walled garden featuring Michigan wildflowers among the massive stone foundations of a former horse barn, a labyrinth, a landscaped visitor’s center built in a former granary dating to 1886 (complete with an underground tunnel) surrounded by pools, a waterfall, an outdoor pavilion and generous plantings of native shrubs and perennials. The latest addition is a sugar maple “allee” planted with over 11,000 spring bulbs.
Another charming public space is located just outside the Traverse Area District Library, on the northeast shore of Boardman Lake. It’s the Grand Traverse Area Children’s Garden, which combines a tranquil walk-through garden area near the library with extensive flower and vegetable plots where children of all ages can actively engage in hands-on gardening while learning sustainability, conservation and environmental stewardship.
At these “Learning Gardens,” youngsters from local schools, therapy groups, day cares, home schools, and other organizations spend the summer planning, planting, and cultivating organic gardens under the supervision and assistance of volunteer community mentors and student interns. It’s always fun to stroll among the plots to see what’s growing there.
A much more purely decorative garden is Sunnybank, the private garden of writer/gardener/musician Dee Blair, who has been landscaping the grounds of her exquisite Queen Anne home on Sixth Street for over 20 years. Like English park gardens of the Victorian era, the cozy little garden is organized into three “rooms” separated from each other by high fences and gates. Everything – walls, fences, doors, and door art – has been handcrafted by the Blairs.
The garden is usually open every day from Memorial Day to early October, and admission is free; visitors are asked to ring the bell at the entrance to let Ms. Blair know there’s someone in the garden. People come to read, sit or wander along the flowerbeds; thousands of graduation photos and dozens of weddings have used Sunnybank as a backdrop.
Halfway up the Old Mission Peninsula, on Blue Water Road, is the Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery. When owners Walt and Eileen Brys began developing the 91-acre site in 2001 they discovered a low-lying12-acre pocket of land that was too cold for growing wine grapes. In 2013 they found a suitable use for it, as The Secret Garden at Brys Estate, a magical spot in the forest below their vineyard planted with thousands of lavender plants, a fresh flower garden, strawberry and blueberry patches and an herb garden.
Guests can enjoy strolling the garden, enjoying the hillside picnic areas and browsing through hand-crafted lavender products in the farmhouse-inspired garden shop with its wraparound porch. (Summer snack options include lavender lemonade and five flavors of custom-made Moomer’s Ice Cream flavored with Brys-grown strawberries, blueberries and lavender.) The Secret Garden is open seasonally from June to October.
Another garden, located west of town on M-72, is simply known as The Iris Farm. This six-acre farm, features more than 1000 varieties of hybrid German Iris, which are usually in peak bloom during early June. But if you miss the iris bloom, there are also over 200 varieties of new hybrid daylilies and hybrid Asiatic lilies, which bloom from mid-July to early September.
This was a typical Leelanau Peninsula County fruit farm, until the Black family decided to go into the specialty flower business and begin raising plants that did well in the sandy gravel soil. Iris and daylilies, with their thick fleshy rhizomes, seemed to grow freely without a lot of coddling, so they began ordering exotic varieties from around the world. Today the Iris Farm is open to browsers, but visitors can buy fresh bouquets in season, and both rhizomes and whole plants can be ordered for fall planting.