A Home for Your Gnome

Gardening Advice from a Fan of Fun!

The Gnomadic Gardener

November 21, 2023 | Design

Looking Beyond the Neighbor’s Yard in Search of Design Inspiration

To me, the world is one big buffet. I want to taste as much as I can before going back for seconds.

We just returned from the trip of a lifetime and aside from the jet lag and time change, my mind is still racing with memories of New Zealand. It was a big bucket-list box check and an investment both financially and in time spent on planes and airports but I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

I’ll confess that I strive for a catchy title when creating these posts but I’m not sure this one is one hundred percent accurate. When I travel, I’m not always “searching” for design inspiration. Rather I am impacted almost subliminally by the vast change in my surroundings. New sights, tastes, sounds, and smells excite me but often it isn’t until I’m back at the drawing board (or computer) that I find myself influenced by what I have experienced away from my own zip code.

I’m always appreciative of the different plant materials and my jaw reactively drops a bit when I see rhododendron and palm trees on the same site (Ireland and New Zealand). But what really resonates is the layout, structures, and unusual focal points or amenities as these aren’t plant zone dependent.

When I was a professor of Sustainable Landscape Design at The University of Tennessee, I was extremely fortunate to lead students each Spring on study-abroad garden treks across most of Europe and Japan. Yeah, I hear you. “Boo hoo, tough job!” Yes, it was at times. When you’re responsible for 20 young lives for a few weeks in a foreign country, there were some moments of stress. But there were also some fabulous perks.

For any who have read my past posts, you know that I try to be brief so I’ll do you a favor and only list a few of my favorite places rather than wear out my typing fingers and your patience. In no particular order, here are today’s top five locations (tomorrow, I may change my mind):

Appeltern Gardens –

I’ve been to this garden three times. We had budgeted about 2 hrs. the first time and I quickly learned that you really need about 4-6 hrs. to really seeing this Disneyland of horticulture about an hour east of Amsterdam. Last count there were about 200 individual gardens in this place and also a fantastic collection of hardscape and site furnishing displays. There is also a wondrous children’s garden with loads of fun activities usually aimed at the younger crowd. But don’t let that stop you! If it’s warm I guarantee you’ll come away sweating at least a little bit (but it’s a good sweat, not the nervous, smelly kind).

This picture shows about 1/3 of what awaits you at Appeltern!


Chaumont Garden Festival – Domain De Chaumont – Sur-Loire, France

Unlike the Chelsea Flower Show in London where 50,000 people cram onto a small plot of space each day for one weekend, this garden festival takes place over several months and features many invited and very talented garden designers. The themes change throughout and it’s easy to experience a huge diversity of garden rooms in one afternoon. Plus, if you get gardened out you can tour some of the wineries and wine caves nearby tucked into the Loire Valley.

Chaumont Garden Festival


Monasterio de Piedra – Zaragoza, Spain

After traveling through some quite dry and dusty Spanish countryside north of Madrid, you eventually come upon this literal oasis with several wondrous waterfalls and huge trees. What a contrast from olive trees! The first time I visited this dream-like landscape, I kind of welled up a little bit wondering how anything could be so beautiful. This isn’t a collection of plants as much as it is a journey through cascades.

Monasterio de Piedra


Takayama, Japan

Ok, this is more of a small village rather than a garden but its size and walkability along with some fascinating thatched roof structures make it worth visiting. I even fell in love with how they move their stormwater through stone-lined rills and ponds. I’ve only been there in the spring and fall but having a look at their winter postcards makes me want to see it covered in a blanket of white fluff.

Takayama, Japan


The Garden of Cosmic Speculation – Dumfries, Scotland

Technically, this garden is only open to the public one day a year as a fundraiser for cancer research. This is very fitting as owner, Landscape Architect and theorist, Charles Jencks lost his second wife to cancer in 1995. We were lucky to have it open to our study-abroad group when I contacted the garden several months prior to our visit. Not exaggerating, this is the designer’s dream come to life. Probably the most photogenic parts of the garden are its super-sized turf-covered land forms. I first stumbled upon Mr. Jencks work after I got all my students on their respective planes in Edinburgh and had a “free day” to myself to explore this lovely city. I came upon the Modern Museum of Art and was floored by similar sculptural land forms and had to know who created them.

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation


Some of the well-traveled readers may ask, “What about the Chelsea Flower Show or Versailles, or how about Villa De Este in Italy? Make no mistake, I can find something outstanding in nearly any garden. The places I have mentioned above were chosen because even years after I have set foot in their collections of plants, outdoor rooms, and hardscapes, I can still vividly recall how the gears in my brain were spinning as I took in these magical places.

A word of caution. If you’re planning to add any of the above to an itinerary you may be planning, do some research first. Just like people, gardens change over time and may not be as they were when I first visited them. Personnel and garden management have everything to do with a garden’s appearance and like the plants themselves these are never static.

Some may read this and think foreign travel is only for the wealthy. There is no doubt that it takes some investment to cross many time zones but please remember that this is exactly what it is. An investment, not an expense. You actually become richer from travel (think experiences vs. things). We’ve all seen some dream-like places on our computers, phones, and big screens and thought “if only”. But to coin a phrase I totally made up, probably while sipping on a refreshing beverage, There is a difference between seeing there and being there.

The Shire – New Zealand

Bon Voyage!