7 Midwest Estate Gardens Worth Traveling For
There's something enticing and a little intoxicating about wandering the lush gardens of a grand estate in springtime—when the scents of damp earth and new blooms open our winter-weary senses. In the Midwest, you can wander a hilltop property accessed by boat, a historic homage to famed landscaper brothers, and a re-creation of the Black Forest on the grounds of a brewery.
While there is beauty and serenity at each, they also offer inspiration to take home. That's the mission of self-taught gardener Steve Bialk, who created the gardens at Milwaukee's Sanger House: "My gardens are also inspiring people to grab a shovel or a trowel, to start small and build out from there, because that's how I did it." Ideas to up your game—or just the promise of fresh air—are plentiful at these seven estate gardens.
1. Cranbrook House and Gardens, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Nestled in the trees atop "The Mountain" (actually a hill created from soil excavated during the mansion construction), an ancient marble sculpture of Zeus cries real tears when visitors step on the right paver—though it may involve some trial and error. Weeping Zeus is just one of the pleasures awaiting discovery at this 40-acre garden and English Tudor estate built for philanthropists George and Ellen Booth in 1908. Eric Franchy, who works for Cranbrook, describes the gardens as botanical art: "[It's a] creative expression using plants, just as a painter carefully selects paints and the placement of each stroke." With nearly 20 different garden areas and styles, there's a lot to fit into one visit (especially if you also want to tour the home, metro Detroit's oldest surviving historic manor). Definitely don't miss the dramatic symmetry of the Sunken Garden and the photo-ready Red Bridge in the Japanese Garden.
2. Dow Gardens, Midland, Michigan
Visiting the 110-acre Dow Gardens, established in 1899 as part of the estate of industrialist Herbert H. Dow and wife Grace, presents a quandary: Where to start? Themed gardens, bridges and a waterfall beckon. Colorful plantings in the Children's Garden delight the young and young at heart. The nation's longest canopy walk offers panoramic views from 40 feet up in Whiting Forest. But aimlessly roaming the grounds is always an option. "We invite visitors to leave the pathway," says Kristen Inman of Dow Gardens. "And yes, you can walk on the grass!" Encouraging this sort of interaction with nature is a primary focus. "We work diligently to find creative new ways to introduce the public to horticulture," Inman says, citing herb sampling and tree-climbing programs as two of the many ways to experience the estate.
3. Plummer House Gardens, Rochester, Minnesota
When physician Henry S. Plummer drew up plans for his Tudor-style home in 1917, they included then-unheard-of outdoor innovations like an underground sprinkler system and a circular water tower built from stone quarried on-site. The well-tended garden of Plummer House still prospers today; its expanse of green lawn and terraced flower beds is a popular backdrop for weddings and parties. Bursts of bright blooms break up shade-loving hostas, and hornbeam and hemlock trees ring the lawn. A trail popular with birders invites further exploration.
4. Schell Mansion and Gardens, New Ulm, Minnesota
Sip a pilsner after wandering the shady paths of a German-inspired garden, complete with peacocks and a deer park. This is the home of August Schell Brewing Company, started in 1860 by one of the Midwest's earliest beer barons (an immigrant who also cofounded the town of New Ulm). In 1885, with his business firmly established, Schell built a mansion that remains today, surrounded by landscaping that reminded him of his Black Forest homeland—tall pines, stone walls and a carpet of lilies of the valley. The beer garden with music and food trucks? That's a modern addition, but one that Schell surely would have toasted.
5. Black Point Estate and Gardens, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
As the tour boat approaches shore, high on a bluff, an ornate Queen Anne-style mansion comes into view. Black Point Estate and Gardens, a summer home built by Chicago brewery magnate Conrad Seipp, has been welcoming visitors by water since 1888. Seipp capitalized on the perched location with casually elegant gardens and a wooded lot spilling down the hill toward the lake. Once ashore, visitors climb 120 stairs up the bluff to reach the house. A wraparound veranda surrounded by flower beds entices on warm days, when a cooling breeze drifts off the lake and catches the perfume of the blooms—the way it's always been.
Related: Top Things to Do in Lake Geneva
6. Sanger House Gardens, Milwaukee
Self-taught gardener Steve Bialk didn't realize he was creating a legacy at his Brewer's Hill home when he started planting flowers over 30 years ago to "mentally unwind" from the rigors of the work week. But today, the four-season landscaping around his 1872 Italianate mansion features more than 500 plant varieties and attracts seasoned gardeners and curious visitors alike. The Sanger House Gardens are open to the public daily but closed during private events, so Bialk says to call before planning a weekend visit. He still adds something new every year but says education is his goal these days. "What I'm trying to do now is get people to feel that gardening shouldn't be intimidating," he explains. "I want to inspire people and show them what can be done."
Related: 36 Hours in Milwaukee
7. Lilly House and Gardens, Indianapolis
Finding sprawling, carefully cultivated gardens amid an urban setting may be unexpected, but Newfields, the 152-acre campus that also holds the Indianapolis Museum of Art, yields a botanical bonanza. The Lilly House, a 1907 estate once owned by businessman Josiah K. Lilly Jr., anchors Newfields' gardens, which were originally designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm. (If the name sounds familiar: Frederick Law Olmsted created Central Park, and his sons, who founded the firm, helped conceive the National Park Service.) At the Lilly house, the Formal Garden and The Allée have an intentional step-back-in-time vibe, with meandering paths that do exactly what the designers intended—invite strolling and contemplation.
Related: Top Things to Do in Indianapolis