July 15, 2013

The Berkshires Seemed Dreamlike....

If you are a member of a garden club or other civic organization, and you have ever thought, ‘Hey, we could raise some money by putting on a garden tour,’ here is my advice:  if you’ve never organized a tour before, don’t do anything until July 11, 2015.  Then, get yourself to Lenox, Massachusetts, and buy a ticket to the Lenox Garden Club’s ‘Hidden Treasures of the Berkshires’ garden and house tour.  After you’ve been on that tour, go home and replicate their efforts.
I know a thing or two about garden tours.  Five years ago, I watched as my wife, Betty, organized and ran an exceptionally innovative (and extremely successful) two-weekend tour for the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  Our own home has been part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days program and a stop on other garden tours. 
In short, I know what kind of work goes into a successful tour and this past weekend’s ‘Hidden Treasures’ tour was a class act.  Here’s why:
The weir and rapids at this property
were created as part of the
landscape design  Double-click
for a full-screen image.
Start with the tour ticket.  It’s a 34-page effort; a description of the homes and gardens on display, a map of how to get from garden to garden, plus a whole lot of full-color ads.  The first rule of a successful garden tour is to never, ever give short shrift to sponsors and the Lenox Garden Club brought in lots of them.  People go on tours because they’re looking for garden or home ideas.  The ads say, ‘Why not start with us?’  A sponsor-heavy tour also means an organization doesn’t need to depend on ideal weather (with lots of ‘walk-in’ tour-goers) to meet its financial goals.
Continue with the signage.  We sort of know our way around Berkshire County but the byways on which the gardens were located were unfamiliar to us.  No problem:  we got off the Mass Pike and were immediately presented with yellow signs point us to the appropriate gardens.  There was even a ticket sale and information table set up right across the road from a fast food restaurant within sight of the exit. When there was a fork in the road, those yellow signs kept us headed in the right direction. The tour recognized that not everyone has GPS.
An enclosed garden space at
one property provided an
opportunity to get close to plants
Remember that docents are the ‘special sauce’ in a tour and that a smiling, helpful docent can make the difference between an ‘OK’ tour and a memorable one.  The dozens of docents we met were uniformly friendly and ready to assist or answer questions.  (As an aside, one of the first docents we ran into was Jacqueline Connell who, when she isn’t in the Berkshires, is president of the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut.  Which goes to prove that being a docent is a noble calling.)
Make it easy to get to the gardens.  One of the outstanding features of the Lenox tour was that shuttle buses took us from parking areas to remote gardens.  One such garden was in the middle of a 500-acre estate and the only available parking was in a field by the main road.  A pair of 14-passenger buses made a continuous loop from the parking area.  Such transportation is not cheap, but it is a necessity if you want to ensure that everyone can enjoy the event.  Three of the gardens had such shuttles.
Keep the homeowners happy.  Four of the five properties encouraged visitors to take a look inside the house.  At three of those homes, docents were handing out booties to slip over shoes.  The ladies who gently but adamantly insisted that everyone who entered the homes don those booties deserve a round of applause and, possibly, a stiff drink.
Garden tours are about more than
horticulture.  The 'hardscape' at
this property included a covered
bridge built to a walking scale.
Make the gardens instructive.  A garden tour should offer a range of ideas.  Some gardens should be over the top, some should offer ideas accessible to even the most modest garden.  The Lenox tour offered a range of gardens but, if I can offer a single quibble, it is that they all appeared to have been professionally designed and maintained.  On the other hand, at the most luxurious garden (created by one of the region’s top designers), the homeowners were on hand to answer visitor questions.
Use the proceeds wisely.  The Lenox Garden Club has been around for more than a century and this tour was their 22nd edition of what is now a biennial event.  The tour book makes clear where the proceeds of the fund-raiser go.  In an excellent essay by club member Michelle Gillett, the beneficiaries are enumerated:  the Berkshire Botanical Garden, MassAudubon, Berkshire Natural Resource Council, the Nature Conservancy, Housatonic Valley Association, Trustees of Reservation/Naumkeag, and the Edith Wharton home, The Mount.  That’s an impressive list.

I tip my hat to the club for a job well done.

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