"God Almighty first planted a garden, and indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures."
— Francis Bacon
Gardens are a passion of mine. When I lived in New Orleans, I frequently would make the two-hour drive to spend an afternoon in the antebellum splendor of Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, Ala. Now that I'm in Lexington, whenever I want to think, I head for The Arboretum or the gardens at Ashland. I confess to a deep longing to see the green space in the middle of downtown turned into a lovely garden. I think an oasis of plants and trees — rather than another pile of bricks and mortar — is what the city needs.
Realizing that this isn't likely to happen, let me suggest two Kentucky gardens that would make an ideal day trip, or even a pleasant detour on your way to somewhere else.
Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, a German immigrant and itinerant peddler who became a successful distiller, recognized the importance of gardens. After he became wealthy selling his bourbon under the I.W. Harper brand, he gifted the people of Kentucky not with a high-rise tower or a parking garage, but with a forest.
He got the design for his parkland from Frederick Law Olmstead, who knew something about parks, having created New York's Central Park. Today, the forest's Arboretum Way loops around the 250-acre arboretum that Olmstead designed to showcase exotic species that include Tennessee pink redbud, sweetbay magnolia, full moon maple, silky dogwood, Carolina silverbell and Japanese lilac. It is especially beautiful when the azaleas are in bloom.
Bernheim is a place for quiet reflection: The sigh of the breeze and the gentle ripples of Lake Nevin are often the only sounds you hear. Visitors fish in the lake, wander the paths and trails that wind through the forest for more than 35 miles, or settle down with a book in the shade of a star magnolia or a double-flowered Higan cherry tree, without skateboarders, boaters or off-road vehicles to disturb the stillness.
In addition to picnic areas and 16 miles of paved road for cycling, Bernheim Forest offers interactive exhibits, including scent and sound mazes; a discovery walkabout, a canopy walk rising 75 feet off the forest floor; an award-winning visitors' center built from recycled wood; and 6,000 species of trees, shrubs, native grasslands, natural woodlands and a cypress-tupelo swamp scattered across 14,000 acres.
And it's just down the road from the Jim Beam Distillery should you find yourself in the mood for a bourbon tasting.
Yew Dell Botanical Gardens
If the residents of Kentucky are indebted to Isaac Bernheim, they are equally so to Theodore and Martha Klein. The Oldham County couple spent a half-century creating the 33-acre gardens that have won international acclaim as a result of 60 plant varieties introduced by the Kleins.
Follow the trail of miniature pink gnomes throughout the shady grounds to the sunken garden featuring plants from such diverse locales as the Himalayas and the American Southwest; the Serpentine Gardens, with its collection of evergreens and a yew hedge; a natural arboretum; and a walled garden that features a seasonal palette of annuals, perennials and woody plants.
One of the most charming features is the Secret Garden, which can be accessed only through the holly allee. The allee is formed by a double row of American holly trees that form an evergreen tunnel.
Another favorite, especially with the kids, is the replica of a medieval castle, which once was a pool house for the family. The wrought-iron chandeliers were the work of Theodore Klein, a noted artisan. The castle sits atop a terrace that has sweeping views to the Overlook Garden, Meadow and Woodland, with its miles of hiking trails.
As a special bonus, if you plan to visit by July 31, you can see Yew Dell's annual sculpture show. Forty-one sculptures are strategically placed throughout the gardens, and they are all for sale. Some are whimsical — Karen Terhune's Chasin' Tail In(cat)Nito is a stone sculpture inspired by her cat chasing its tail — while others are thought-provoking: Todd Smith's CO Exuvia I, II and III are a trio of life-size sculptures fashioned of tape, cellophane, fiberglass cloth and resin, which hang from trees in the arboretum.