Popping into gardens: A new take on garden tours

Alabama Living Magazine

Pop-up shops — temporary stores that spring up in unexpected places — have become quite popular in the retail world, and now the concept is also all the rage among a group of gardeners.

That group, the Lee County Master Gardeners of Alabama, has been using the pop-up model for several years to host local garden tours aimed at helping members share their gardens with one another. In late 2020, interest in these events burgeoned as the group, though still cautious about COVID 19 exposure, became increasingly keen on reconnecting with one another in person.

Gardens provided the perfect venue — outside with room to socially distance — and by using an online scheduling service (SignUpGenius), attendance could be controlled to avoid overcrowding. Tours were also limited to one or two hours on a single day, which meant neither hosts nor attendees had to commit long periods of time to participate in the events.  

LCMGA member Carol Clemmons so loved the casual and educational aspects of the tours that, shortly after earning her Master Gardener certificate in 2020, she volunteered to serve as the pop-up tour event coordinator.

Jesse Chappell, far right, is one of several Lee County Master Gardeners who host pop-up garden tours throughout the year. The gardens range from formal to naturalized and some, such as the one Jesse and his wife Sherry tend, represent the finest in “edible” landscapes. These pop-up tours provide members frequent opportunities to see what’s growing, and in this case buzzing, in one another’s gardens. Photo by Carol Clemmons

Clemmons was soon recruiting more and more of her fellow LCMGA members to host tours, which sometimes took a little wheedling because many feared their gardens weren’t polished enough to be tour worthy.

“Those are exactly the gardens we wanted,” Clemmons says, explaining that one of the delights of the pop-up tours has been to see gardens as works-in-progress. And, once members began to see each other’s gardens, more and more were willing to participate as hosts.

The result is that, from late 2020 to fall of 2022, LCMGA hosted 24 tours featuring a diverse array of garden styles — from traditional to naturalized to cottage and more. On those tours, visitors have been able to experience a wide range of plants including daylilies, hydrangeas, trilliums, maples, vegetables and fruits in their prime. 

They’ve also been able to see how fellow gardeners creatively incorporate everything from honeybees and chickens to original art into their garden spaces and learn how they deal with pests and other gardening challenges.

A big advantage of pop-up events is that they can be scheduled on the spur of the moment as plants come into their full glory. And the tours can be held year-round. “No matter the season, there is always something to see in a garden,” Clemmons says, which is why she intentionally schedules tours in the off-season, often returning to previous tour sites to see how the landscape has changed.

Still another perk of the tours is that hosts are often generous with plant material, sending “free samples” home with the participants.

LCMGA’s pop-up tours are intended to be free educational and social opportunities for their Master Gardeners and Friends of Master Gardeners members and interns as well as their family and friends. (LCMGA’s biennial garden tour, which will be held this year on May 13, is their primary fundraiser.) However, other groups could easily monetize the concept or adapt it to fit their specific needs and goals.

“The tours have been a wonderful way to promote learning and fellowship,” Clemmons says. “And they are so much fun!” For those and many other reasons, she encouraged other groups to embrace the concept.

By the way, from now through the fall many of the state’s public gardens and gardening organizations will be hosting garden tours, so be on the lookout for additional opportunities to pop into or linger in local gardens. Or simply invite your own friends and neighbors to pop over and see your garden. You and they will be happy you shared!

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.


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