Our Five Faves

Best public gardens

Posted May 2

Duke Gardens hosted an outdoor party for it's supporters at sunset on Sept. 27, 2011. Guests sipped champagne and dined on hors d'oeuvres while enjoying performances from Carolina Ballet and the North Carolina Symphony and Opera.

— Nothing can compare to an afternoon stroll in a garden on a sunny spring afternoon, and residents in the Triangle are fortunate to have access to a number of fine gardens open to the public. Here are five of the best:

Sarah P. Duke Gardens: The grand dame of public gardens in the region, the gardens on the Duke University campus have been putting on a show for more than 75 years. From a wisteria-covered pergola to a koi pond to a spot for a Japanese tea ceremony, this place has it all. Looking for a touch of Italy? Check out the terraced gardens. The white garden brings to mind an English cottage garden. And once you've spotted the arched red bridge from across the pond, you're almost compelled to wander through the Asiatic arboretum, with its bamboo forest, irises and other flowers and plants from the Orient. The gardens also get bonus points for allowing pets to walk the paths with their owners (most others have strict no-dogs policies), although pets aren't allowed in the native plant section, which includes some endangered species from the Southeast U.S.

Spring blooms in the WRAL Azalea Gardens
WRAL Azalea Gardens: OK, so I'm a homer. I admit it. But you can't beat it if you're looking for a blaze of color. The azalea gardens are one of the best perks of working at WRAL. You can always escape the bustle of the newsroom by stepping outside, walking across the lawn and finding a bench for a couple of quiet minutes to reflect or collect your thoughts. Color abounds in the spring and the fall, and the gardens offer a shady respite from the summer heat and are even restful in the winter. They are also exceedingly popular for weddings, prom and graduation photos and tour groups. Can't tell you how many times I've seen someone enjoying the gardens while I'm on my way into the office or walking to my car after work.

Juniper Level Botanical Garden
Juniper Level Botanical Garden: This little gem south of Garner is a mix of a gardener's garden and the story of the "Secret Garden." Owner Tony Avent's home sits in the middle of a lush, almost rain forest-like setting, where paths meander around a couple of manmade waterfalls and rivulets and are surrounded by plants ranging from ferns to cacti to various types of lilies. Like a museum that sends people through the gift shop to get to the exit, some of the couple dozen greenhouses on the property are open next to the gardens for visitors to buy samples of the plants they have just scene to add to their own gardens at home. One note about Juniper Level: It's open to the public only eight weekends a year, so some advance planning is needed to visit.

N.C. Botanical Garden
North Carolina Botanical Garden: This is the least floral of the gardens on the list, as it focuses on the various North Carolina ecosystems, from the coastal plain to the Piedmont to the mountains. Not sure if it's because of its Chapel Hill location, but it also features some of the funkiest sculptures around, including a mammoth series of passageways by stick artist Patrick Dougherty. One of the highlights of the garden are the beds dedicated to carnivorous plants, such as Venus flytraps, which are indigenous to North Carolina's southern coast. It also has an extensive herb garden, which in addition to culinary such herbs as rosemary, thyme and oregano has sections for medicinal herbs and even herbs used in dyes and cosmetics. Nearby are areas featuring plants used by Native American tribes – dogwood twigs apparently make good toothbrushes once they've been chewed a bit, in case you forget to bring one on your camping trip – and poisonous plants from stinging nettles to foxglove.

JP Raulston Arboretum
JC Raulston Arboretum: Tucked between some offices and industrial buildings off Hillsborough Street in west Raleigh, the sound of nearby Interstate 440 fade away as you walk through a range of gardens, from desert plants to beds of roses to a green space encircled by elm trees – even a Japanese Zen garden, complete with raked gravel. The arboretum offers its broad array to give home gardeners ideas they can use, such as collections of plants to attract butterflies and other pollinators, plants that thrive in the shade in the South and bulbs and rhizomes that produce colorful borders without too much watering. Homeowners without expansive yards or who prefer container gardening can check out the rooftop terrace to see heat-tolerant plants that can thrive in small spaces.

Raleigh Rose Garden
Bonus pick: If you visit the WRAL Azalea Gardens, take five minutes to drive over to the Raleigh Little Theatre Rose Garden, off Pogue Street a few blocks north of Hillsborough Street. The sunny glade next to the amphitheater is fragrant even in spring, when most of the roses haven't even bloomed yet. In the summer, it's a spectacular show.

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