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Where to find (or start) the garden of your dreams

By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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REHOBOTH - The surface of the pond catches flowering shrubs, hemlock boughs, and marsh-loving irises, blurring their shapes in reflection. From a bench shaded by a high, leafy canopy, the view has the quality of a dream. This contemplative setting invites visitors to drop into a seat and gaze - yet it lies within a commercial nursery, Tranquil Lake, in Rehoboth. What visitors are gazing at is the nursery’s display garden - one that shows off plants grown and sold here, to demonstrate how customers can use these locally grown beauties at home. Not every nursery has such a garden, but several throughout New England have examples dazzling enough to warrant a trip. Nurseries that are worthy destinations often specialize in unusual and hard-to-find plants - garnet-coned spruce trees or roses shorn into topiary spirals- so their stock is often pricier than plants grown for mass consumption. Such is the price of rare beauty. For those who don’t know a peony from a petunia, these are lovely places to stroll, sit, and perhaps, to dream.

ALLEN C. HASKELL HORTICULTURISTS, New Bedford This nursery, founded in 1953, is a six-acre paradise tucked into a residential neighborhood. The place glows with the patina that graces the best old gardens. Mossy planters, rock walls draped in vines, old shade trees, and granite cobbles form an atmosphere of mystery created by the nursery’s founder, the late Allen Haskell, who won virtually every award in New England for horticulture and design, some several times. Today his family operates the business, which includes horticulture and landscape design as well as the nursery. After plying the greenhouses filled with topiary, lemon trees, roses, exotic geraniums, and bamboo - among many other species - visitors can ramble the paths that lead to an enchanted “forest’’ of exotic specimens, their root balls wrapped in burlap: conifers that weep, creep, or sprout chocolate-colored cones; Japanese maples with leaves that taper into Buddha-fingers or spread into serrated moons. 787 Shawmut Ave., 508-993-9047, haskellnursery.com, daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m., free

ANDREW’S GREENHOUSE, South Amherst Set on a former dairy farm encompassing 180 acres of fields and woods, Andrew’s Greenhouse lies in the bucolic Connecticut River Valley. Andrew Cowles (pronounced “coals’’), who owns the business with his wife, Jacqui, says a farm has occupied this land for centuries. He and his father left dairying behind and started growing hardy vegetable starts, perennials, annuals, and herbs (no trees and shrubs). This is the Cowleses’ 33d year in the trade, and they have gotten pretty good at it. The views from the greenhouses are worth the trip, but a colorful display garden also shows off the blooms of the moment, planted with an eye for complementary colors. Customers prowl vast greenhouses for hard-to-find annuals that last for only one season and perennials grown for their vigor and hardiness. They can also pick bouquets in the cutting garden and buy them by the pound. 1178 South East St. 413-253-2937, andrewsgreenhouse.com, daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m., free

CRICKET HILL GARDEN, Thomaston, Conn. Dan Furman speaks fluent Mandarin, which comes in handy when he travels to China to select tree peonies with names like “Beauty Steps Out of the Bath’’ and “White Crane Standing in Snow.’’ These poetic names often get changed when they enter European and American markets. “There is a story behind each name, and if you change it, we lose that story,’’ says Furman. Cultivated for 1,400 years in cold, mountainous regions, tree peonies are well suited for New England gardens. Dan’s parents, David and Kasha Furman, started Cricket Hill in the 1980s to support their passion for these slow-growing plants, which typically bloom from early May to mid-June. Summer visitors will not find flowers among the deep green foliage sprouting in the woodland display gardens, but a stream, waterfalls, and fanciful glass sculptures make this a cool retreat. Mark next year’s calendar for the annual tree peony festival, when flowers in hues from near-black to icy white will nod once more. Meanwhile, the website offers a sneak peek. Cricket Hill also sells herbaceous peonies (non-woody perennials) and ships all over the country. 670 Walnut Hill Road, 860-283-1042, treepeony.com, Tue-Sun 10 a.m.-4 p.m., free

NEWBURY PERENNIAL GARDENS & NURSERY, Byfield Near the sheet of water that stretches behind the display gardens, a sign cautions “Beware of Swans’’ - good advice anywhere swans are found. The regal if ill-tempered birds, floating at a safe distance, are otherwise the perfect garden accessories for the display gardens, a series of distinct spaces linked by gravel paths, from a shady retreat with a waterfall to a formal rose garden enclosed by clipped hedges. This 13-acre nursery near the Parker River takes pride in its wide selection of perennials, but also sells unusual annuals, flowering shrubs, roses, daylilies, ornamental grasses, herbs, vegetables, and tropical-greenhouse plants. 65 Orchard St., 978-462-1144, newburyperennialgardens.com. Hours for display gardens: Thu-Mon 10 a.m.-4 p.m., adults $6, seniors and children under age 12 $4. The gardens are occasionally closed for private functions, so call ahead.

TRANQUIL LAKE NURSERY, Rehoboth The intimate display garden surrounding the namesake pond belies the size and diversity of the nursery, the largest grower of daylilies and Siberian and Japanese iris in the Northeast. “Local sourcing of everything from food to flowering plants is so important to get the right degree of hardiness and other attributes adapted to this region,’’ says landscape horticulturist Warren Leach, co-owner of the nursery and designer of the display garden. The several thousand daylily varieties he grows (and ships) include several that are hardy to northern New England, and he selects varieties that are drought tolerant, too. “Water is becoming very important, and our plants need to sustain long dry periods,’’ Leach says. The nursery hosts special events and education programs throughout the season. Next Saturday the 20th Annual Open House and Summer Garden Festival features chefs, flower arrangers, herbs, container gardening, speakers and demonstrations. 45 River St., 508-252-4002, tranquil-lake.com, Wed-Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Labor Day, free

WALKER FARM, East Dummerston, Vt. Verdant fields stretch out behind the greenhouses at this farm-turned-nursery, which has been in the Manix family since 1770 and operated by the current generation for 38 years. The Manixes left a long history of sheep farming and dairying to raise organic vegetables and hard-to-find trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. As their business grew, the owners were guided in their selections by their neighbors, horticulturists and authors Joe Eck and the late Wayne Winterrowd. “That was the key to our success, the mentoring by Joe and Wayne,’’ says co-owner Karen Manix. “They got us interested in wacky plants, and that’s how all this insanity started,’’ she laughs. The “wacky’’ taste shows up in the quirky conifers that lend a fantasy air to the display gardens. Events and seminars are also part of the nursery’s offerings. 1190 US Route 5, 802-254-2051, walkerfarm.com, daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., free

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at janeroybrown@verizon.net.