3 Luscious Rhode Island Gardens to Visit this Spring
Journey through a jungle of flowers, trees and plants to get inspiration for your homegrown spaces.
As we start to shed layers of winter clothing, spring and summer florals greet us with new blossoms. Not just for show, they’re here to remind us that no matter what happens, you can always rely on the annual blooms to bring joy and color to our state. Between these luscious gardens, there’s something for everyone.
For the Plant Parent: Roger Williams Park Botanical Center, Providence
You can find forty-foot-tall palm trees, ten-foot-tall cactuses and a lush greenhouse filled with koi ponds, vibrant tropical plants and even fruit trees and edible gardens on a small island in the heart of Roger Williams Park. The Botanical Center’s greenhouses blend into the curving landscape, merely hinting at the magic that lies inside the humid glass structures.
If you’re looking for luscious greenery, head to the conservatory and Mediterranean room. During the winter, it’s a warm escape into a tropical environment, and in the summer, the ceiling and walls open to become part of the outdoors. Even in the city heat, the conservatory is climate-controlled to ensure the plants are well-hydrated to live a long and happy life.
Visitors can pack a lunch and crack open a new book on one of the donated benches, or even bring some work for a tropical change of scenery. Say hello to the Nigerian dwarf goats located next to the patio, who act as one form of biological pest control for the plants. You can even meet them on goat walk days. Stroll the new meadow path and don’t forget to stop by the other blooming areas, especially the Japanese trail and seasonal cut flower garden.
The botanical center is for the public, by the public. Volunteers are always welcome to assist in the Flavor Lab, which is home to edible plants and both indoor and outdoor gardens, says Director Lee Ann Freitas. During the Fairy Garden days in April, community members build hundreds of tiny houses from sticks and other natural items, which are then displayed throughout the gardens.
Weddings and other special occasions are often held at the conservatory. Cocktail receptions can be held outdoors along a waterfall. A surrounding rose maze, gazebo and perennial gardens make for a stunning backdrop for photos. For summer weddings, the tent pavilion is home to receptions, but during the winter, the greenhouses are used to the max, with twinkling lights hanging from above. This way, guests can dance under the stars year-round.
Check the online calendar of events so you don’t miss yoga classes, paint and photography days, or fairy and gnome nature hikes and builds.
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Admission $5; ages six to twelve, seniors and military $2; ages five and younger free.
The details: 2 Williams Ave., Providence, 680-7263, providenceri.gov/botanical-center
For the History Buff: Blithewold, Bristol
When Augustus and Bessie Van Wickle visited Bristol one summer, little did they know that by purchasing the Gardner estate on Ferry Road they’d create such a historic Ocean State treasure.
The family visited the East Bay area in 1894 to purchase a Herreshoff yacht which they named “Marjorie” after their first daughter, and found the property just down the road suitable for a summer home, naming it Blithewold.
Bessie had a vision for her property, and with the help of landscape architect John DeWolf, turned the thirty-three acres into a sprawling botanical garden and arboretum complete with a ten-acre Great Lawn, roses, daffodils, countless other flowers and greenhouses, and 2,000 different varieties of trees and shrubs, including a giant sequoia planted in 1930.
The overarching concept of the estate was to create individual spaces that could be enjoyed on their own, says Betsy Ekholm, Blithewold’s horticulturalist and gardens and greenhouse manager. Although the unique spaces span the entire property, they are unified by the Great Lawn and corralled away from the main road by various species of trees and shrubs.
As you walk throughout the property, one of the unifying aspects is the countless number of daffodils. The rose garden, which houses more than sixty varietals when in season, greets and draws you in. After you stop to smell the flowers, a moon gate marks the way toward the rest of the estate.
The dramatic Lovers’ Lane leads you directly to the dock on the beautiful Narragansett Bay, where the Van Wickles had their own private beach complete with bathhouses for the family to enjoy; the amenities were destroyed in the Great Hurricane of 1938.
Walking past the forty-five-room mansion, you’ll see the surrounding hundred-year-old tall elms and an enormous willow as you approach the North Garden. There you’ll find luscious florals, carefully crafted stonework, garden pools and the Great Lawn facing the bay. If you happen to visit during the warmer months, you’ll often see a tent ready to greet a marrying couple. The surrounding gardens make it the perfect location for a spring or summer wedding when everything is in full bloom.
Working your way deeper into the gardens, you’ll find the favorite spots of each family member, including the summerhouse mainly utilized by the children. Tucked far away from the main road, the children would play on the lawn while the adults chatted and lounged on the porch — a quiet escape from exuberant parties or company. Walking down the shrub walk to the bay, you’ll find the secluded Water and Rock gardens that provide serene escapes. The Rock Garden was Bessie’s favorite, says Ekholm. The Water Garden is one of the most unique areas, heavily influenced by Asian design elements with its lily-filled pond and small arched stone bridge. Catch the garden in spring’s prime to witness the beautiful cherry blossoms.
The Idea Garden, vegetable garden and Lord and Burnham greenhouses round out the rear of the property. The vegetable garden, once plowed by a team of horses, produces more than 1,000 pounds of produce each year, donated to the East Bay Food Pantry and cared for by staffers, volunteers and summer campers.
Blithewold has evolved over the years from a family summer residence to a permanent home and now a public garden and venue. Although the gardens have changed over time, the heritage of the Van Wickle family remains.
Hours: April–October, hours vary with the season.
The details: 101 Ferry Rd., Bristol, 235-2707, blithewold.org
For the Flower Lover: Kinney Azalea Gardens, South Kingstown
When you see the moon gate surrounded by hues of pink and red, that’s when you know you’ve arrived. Welcome to the Kinney Azalea Gardens, a dreamy, fairy-like haven where sixteen acres of blooming azaleas, rhododendrons, wildflowers and exotic trees bloom alongside the University of Rhode Island’s campus.
Lorenzo Kinney Sr., URI’s first botany professor, began the garden by planting conifers on his son’s property in the 1920s. Lorenzo Kinney Jr. continued his father’s legacy at URI by serving as the 4-H director, all the while tending to the space. When he died, the gardens were passed down to daughter Betty Kinney Faella and her husband, Tony.
As you walk through, you’ll realize there isn’t an organized layout.
“It’s not a nursery,” says Helen Faella Northup, Tony and Betty’s daughter. “It was never designed by color — it was always a mix of color and backdrops.”
For the full effect, be sure to visit in mid-May, as azalea peak season is only two weeks long. If you happen to miss it, there are plenty of other varietals blooming from mid-April through the end of June, Helen says. There is endless greenery on the trails, paths and bridges even when the flowers aren’t in bloom.
You’ll find the Tony Faella Moon Gate a little farther back in the property. Tony and Betty first saw a moon gate on a trip to Bermuda, and legend has it that if you walk through or kiss under the moon gate with your partner, you’ll live happily ever after. The pair fell in love with the concept, and Betty and the children had one built in his name for his seventy-fifth birthday.
Tony and Betty are still very much involved in the gardens. You can often see Tony parking cars and giving tours via golf cart. “They love doing it,” Northup says. “They love showing people the gardens.”
The gardens are free and open to the public, except for May 13, when Tony and Betty hold a private party. An annual tradition, the garden is reserved one Saturday per year just for them.
As bloom season coincides with spring weddings and prom season, the gardens are open to hosting small events. Ceremonies are allowed, but not receptions; photographers are allowed for a small fee and must sign waivers. If you visit with children, make sure to pick up a scavenger hunt flyer at the entrance and watch as they scramble to find items throughout the blooms.
Even though the gardens have been around for years, there are many Rhode Islanders who don’t know that such a treasure exists in South County, Northup says.
“When people come, they don’t realize that it’s there — that’s the biggest surprise. There are people down the street who moved in and didn’t even realize it’s there.”
HOURS: Open every day during daylight hours, except for May 13.
The details: 2391 Kingstown Rd., Kingston, kfgfriends.org