By Cliff Roles, courtesy Marie Selby Gardens
Southern gardens’ ability to simultaneously soothe and lift spirits makes them a natural for gatherings. Overtaxed minds seem to naturally unwind.
“Something happens at soul level when attendees experience a garden that allows them to commune with others in a way that is impossible in the hustle-bustle world most of us live in,” said Bob Bledsoe, executive director of Garvan Woodland Gardens near Hot Springs, Ark.
These five garden gathering sites roll out the green carpet.
The Gardens at Middleton Place
History hangs thick as spanish moss at Middleton Place, near Charleston, S.C.
The former rice plantation on the Ashley River is home to what are considered America’s oldest gardens, 65 acres of formal, French-style displays. Blooms flourish year-round — centuries-old camellias all winter, vivid azaleas come springtime, summer’s crepe myrtles and roses lasting into fall.
Still in the hands of the family that founded it, Middleton Place interprets the lives of the four generations that have lived there.
Costumed interpreters ply traditional crafts in the 18th- to 19th-century Stableyards, where the plantation’s restaurant can cater Lowcountry buffets with vegetables grown in gardens on the property. The outdoors is a natural for events. Attendees can meander from portable bar to portable bar during a Progressive Wine Stroll in the gardens or dine in secret gardens or a rose garden next to the massive Middleton Oak, its ancient limbs candlelit by night.
“If we can fit a table in a space,” said Drew Zalkin, director of group services, “a planner can have a reception or event there.”
Unlike many garden spots, Middleton has an overnight option, the 55-room Inn at Middleton Place, a splash of contemporary comfort tucked into pine woods.
Yew Dell Botanical Gardens
A site for daylong corporate retreats and larger events is but a quick trip from Louisville, Ky.
“Attendees can jump on a bus at the Seelbach Hotel, for instance, and 14 miles later, they’re here, away from the city, away from phones,” said Paul Cappiello, executive director of Yew Dell Gardens in Crestwood, Ky. “You can see their pulse drop when they walk through the door. The garden is a real decompression zone.”
The former home, nursery and farm of Kentucky nursery industry leader Theodore Klein, Yew Dell is a nationally recognized 60-acre center of gardening, education, research and sustainable horticulture. Some of its plant collections are among the country’s most extensive.
Several buildings that were part of the original estate, such as a pool house that resembles a stone castle, have been modified for meeting use. Tents are often erected for events on lawns and in gardens.
An all-day workshop for up to 135 can begin in the Gheens Barn. From there, a covered, glass-enclosed bridgeway connects to the Pavilion for a lunch with views of meadows and woods.
During meeting breaks, guests can take iPod tours or prearranged guided tours.
In addition to constantly expanding its existing gardens, Yew Dell is planning to build several “greener” greenhouses (see sidebar, p. 31). A permanent tent pad is also in the works, with an open-sided, roofed structure for large outdoor events.
Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens
A scant 25 minutes from Charlotte in Belmont, N.C., a garden oasis that HGTV has called one of the country’s 20 Great Gardens lies on the shores of 13,400-acre Lake Wylie.
At the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, 12 fountains bubble in 10 acres of themed gardens, among them tropical, perennial, cottage, conifer and azalea gardens.
All were the vision of retired textile executive Daniel J. Stowe, who reserved nearly 400 acres to develop a botanical garden, opened to the public in 1992.
“We’re 12 years into our 50-year master plan to develop this property,” said Jim Hoffman, director of marketing. “Only 120 acres are now under cultivation.
“In the next 35 to 40 years, we plan to add a number of themed gardens and at least one more greenhouse.”
Planners will find a number of meeting spaces. The 13,500-square-foot, stained-glass-domed Visitor Pavilion and the Great Hall have views of the Four Seasons Garden. That garden, Garvan’s largest outdoor event space, can be tented for gatherings of some 400 guests. Wisely, architects made sure garden terraces adjoin indoor meeting spaces.
“In our Orchid Conservatory, a wall of orchids and a waterfall provide a nice diversion from the business at hand,” Hoffman said.