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Online refer: For more garden photos, go to baltimoresun.com/travel. For more information on gardening, read Susan Reimer's blog at baltimoresun.com/gardenvariety

When Cheval Opp retired from IBM, she knew exactly what she would do with her time.

Visit gardens.

"My whole life at IBM, whenever they would send me anywhere, I would take an extra day or a weekend and visit gardens," she said. "When I realized I'd be retiring and I could do anything I wanted, I knew what it would be."

Now Opp helps travelers and day trippers arrange tours of the many public gardens in the Mid-Atlantic area. She helps choose which gardens to see and how to time the visits.

"This is my second act," said the woman who calls her garden tour company (of course) Cheval's Second Act.

National Public Gardens Day is Friday, when America celebrates the role of these public gardens in promoting environmental concerns. But public gardens have an impact on visitors that goes beyond plant or water conservation and reaches into the spirit.

"Studies show us that even the plant on the window sill is calming," said Opp, who lives in Dunn Loring, Va., and also writes and lectures about public gardens.

"We know that these things are alive, and we are part of their life cycle. And we know if they are alive, we are alive," she said.

The Mid-Atlantic has an abundance of stunning public gardens not only because of the industrial wealth that was once centered in this part of the East Coast but because the climate is moderate enough to support a vast range of plant life.

Choosing the best of them to visit isn't easy. There are dozens in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia that are worth a day trip.

Opp's advice?

If you want to see a garden that is beautiful every season of the year, go to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington.

"It is a work of art," she says.

Here's a sampling of other gardens in the region — from huge landscapes to little green gems — that are worthy of a springtime stroll.

Nemours

Nemours Mansion and Gardens, the 300-acre estate of Alfred I. du Pont, is named after the du Pont ancestral home in France. The mansion is an excellent example of a modified Louis XVI French chateau. The gardens, their design influenced by du Pont's many trips to Europe, are the largest example of French formal gardens in North America, patterned after the gardens of Versailles.

What's blooming: the Reflecting Pool, one acre in size with 157 jets, backed by Japanese cryptomeria, pink flowering horse chestnut, and pin oaks.

Don't miss: The Sunken Gardens, featuring a large lake and grottoes and the Temple of Love with life-size statue of the goddess Diana.

Get there: 77 miles from Baltimore at Route 141 (Powder Mill Road) and Alapocas Drive in Wilmington, Del.

Info: $15 and guests must be older than 12. Reservations are recommended. Call 302-651-6912 or visit nemoursmansion.org.

Winterthur

Three generations of the du Pont family lived and gardened on Winterthur's 1,000 acres, and all preferred a garden that made the most of the natural landscape. The last du Pont to live here, Henry Francis, selected the choicest plants from around the world to enhance the natural setting, carefully orchestrating a succession of bloom from late January to November. Even after he turned his former home into a museum in 1951, he kept his garden in private ownership until his death in 1969.

What's blooming: the Sundial Garden, originally the site of the family's tennis courts, is at its peak in spring with lilacs, viburnums, crabapples and spirea, all in shades of pink, white and lavender.

Don't miss: Enchanted Woods, a magical children's garden with treehouses and fairy houses.

Get there: 78 miles from Baltimore at 5105 Kennett Pike (Route 52), Winterthur, Del.

Info: $18 for adult nonmembers; $30 for admission and a one-hour guided tour. Call 302-888-4600 or visit winterthur.org

Mt. Cuba Center

Mt. Cuba Center is the former home of Lammot du Pont Copeland. The stately Colonial Revival manor house was built in 1935 and shortly after, the Copelands, enthusiastic gardeners, began to develop a series of gardens, a process that would continue for 30 years. Today, it is a center dedicated to the study and conservation of plants native to the Appalachian Piedmont region.

What's blooming: the Lilac Allee was designed in 1936 by Thomas Sears of Philadelphia, and it features 25 cultivars of French hybrid lilacs, at their colorful and fragrant peak in early May.

Don't miss: The Meadow Garden is in continuous color change throughout the year with native grasses such as little bluestem, broom-sedge, and Indian grass.

Get there: 72 miles from Baltimore at 3120 Barley Mill Road, Hockessin, Del.

Info: $5. Tours are guided and require a reservation. Call 302-239-4244 or visit mtcubacenter.org

Longwood Gardens

In 1700, a Quaker family named Peirce purchased the property from William Penn, established a working farm and, in 1798, began an arboretum. By 1850, the site held one of the finest collections of trees in the nation. The farm was purchased in 1906 by Pierre du Pont to keep the trees from being cut for timber. From 1907 until the 1930s, du Pont created most of what is there today, including the enormous conservatory and the 10,000-pipe organ.

What's blooming: Lilytopia, May 20-30. The East Conservatory will showcase of the newest varieties of lilies from the Netherlands. And there will be a display of more than 10,000 cut stems by Dutch floral designer Dorien van den Berg.

Don't miss: The fountains, including the 5-acre Fountain Garden.

Get there: 76 miles from Baltimore at 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pa.

Info: $18 for adult nonmembers. Call 800-737-5500 or visit longwoodgardens.org

Chanticleer

The Chanticleer estate, called the most romantic public garden in the United States, dates from the early 20th century, when land along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was developed for those wanting to escape the summer heat of Philadelphia. The house was built by pharmaceutical firm owner Adolph Rosengarten Sr., who hired landscape architect Thomas Sears to design terraces as extensions of the house. Chanticleer is synonymous with "rooster," and the Rosengartens used rooster motifs throughout the estate.

What's blooming: The Tea Cup Garden, located in the courtyard, is planted this time of year with colored lettuces, poppies and yellow twig dogwoods.

Don't miss: The Ruin Garden is designed on the site of Minder House, built in 1925 for the Rosengartens' son, Adolph Jr., who lived there for most of his life. In 1999, the house was razed and gardens were designed in and around three "rooms" on what was left of the foundation.

Get there: 105 miles from Baltimore at 786 Church Road, Wayne, Pa.

Info: $10 for adults, $15 for a guided tour; $30 for a season pass. Picnicking is permitted, except on Mother's Day. Call 610-687-4163 or visit chanticleergarden.org

Hortulus Farm

Hortulus, a 100-acre farmstead and nursery in the hills of historic Bucks County, Pa., has been called "one of Pennsylvania's secret treasures." Created and owned by garden designer Renny Reynolds and garden writer Jack Staub, Hortulus is considered a "connoisseur's nursery" because of the unusual varieties it offers for sale, many of which can be seen in the 20 formal gardens.

What's blooming: Spring in the best time to visit, when the property is ablaze with 200,000 daffodils, narcissus, bluebells, native dogwoods and white azaleas.

Don't miss: The museum on the property holds the owners' collection of Bucks County impressionist paintings, as well as a horticultural library of almost 1,000 garden books and collections of antique garden tools and statuary. By appointment only.

Get there: 139 miles from Baltimore at 60 Thompson Mill Road, Wrightstown, Pa.

Info: Free. Call 215-598-0550 or visit hortulusfarm.com.

Bartram's Garden

On this site more than 250 years ago, John Bartram, a Quaker farmer, was stopped in his tracks by a daisy while plowing his fields. The plant's simplicity and beauty inspired Bartram and his son, William, to spend the rest of their lives exploring, collecting and seeking to understand all forms of nature. In 1783, the Bartrams issued the first printed plant catalog in America and supplied plants for Independence Hall, George Washington's Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, and E.I. du Pont's Nemours.

What's blooming: the Wetlands. Thousands of native wetland plants, including bulrushes, marsh grasses, irises, hibiscuses and marsh roses, have been planted along the lower Schuylkill River.

Don't miss: the Franklinia Altamaha tree. It was discovered by John and William Bertram in Georgia in 1765 and named for their great friend, Benjamin Franklin. The tree was never seen in the wild after 1803, but Franklinia still exists thanks to the Bartrams, who are credited with saving it from extinction.

Get there: 100 miles from Baltimore at 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia

Info: Self-guided tours are free. $10 for guided tours of the home and garden on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only. Call 215-729-5281 or visit bartramsgarden.org

Monticello

Situated on a mountaintop outside Charlottesville, Va., Monticello, a 5,000-acre plantation, was the home of Thomas Jefferson, a founding father and third president of the United States. Monticello was designed and redesigned and built and rebuilt for more than 40 years, and its gardens were a showpiece, a source of food and an experimental laboratory of ornamental and useful plants from around the world

What's blooming: For a photo gallery of the flowers and trees that are blooming at any time at Monticello, visit monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/in-bloom

Don't miss: The re-creation of the Monticello vegetable garden began in 1979 with two years of archaeological excavations. Archaeologists uncovered the remnants of the stone wall, exposed the foundation of the garden pavilion and searched for the garden walkways. The re-creation is especially accurate in detailing the structure of the garden.

Get there: 161 miles from Baltimore at 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, Va.

Info: $15 to $55, depending on the tour. Go to monticello.org.

River Farm

River Farm is a historic 25-acre site on the banks of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va. Once part of George Washington's original five farms, River Farm has been the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society since 1973.

What's blooming: The Perennial Border — actually a series of smaller gardens — offers an ever-changing succession of color and interest throughout the year. At one end of the Perennial Border stands a set of historic White House gates, first installed in 1819 as part of the reconstruction project to repair damage from the War of 1812.

Don't miss: For decades, the meadow at River Farm was a vast expanse of lawn. Between 2004 and 2008, however, this 4-acre site was transformed into a meadow filled with more than 100,000 plants. Kurt Bluemel, former chairman of the American Horticultural Society's board of directors, created this natural legacy in memory of his son, Andre Bluemel.

Get there: 50 miles from Baltimore at 7931 East Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, Va.

Info: Free. Call 800-777-7931 or visit ahs.org/river_farm

Brookside Gardens

Brookside Gardens is Montgomery County's award-winning 50-acre public display garden in Wheaton Regional Park. Included are 32 acres of cultivated gardens and two conservatories. A horticultural reference library is located in the visitors center.

What's blooming: the Azalea Garden — over 300 varieties of azaleas represented by 2,000 plants. Also rhododendrons, hollies, Japanese andromeda, sweet-box, skimmia and shade-tolerant perennials

Don't miss: Hundreds of African, Asian, Costa Rican and North American butterflies, which will be flying freely inside the conservatory this summer. Also the Reflection Terrace, a memorial to the 10 people killed in October 2002, by the Washington snipers.

Get there: 32 miles from Baltimore at 1800 Glenallan Ave. in Wheaton

Info: Free. Call 301-962-1400 or visit montgomeryparks.org/brookside.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

If you goCheval's Second Act

Cheval Force Opp is offering guided garden tours, including transportation and admission, through Behnke Nursery in Beltsville. Tours start at $80 per person. For more information, go to chevals2ndact.com or call 703-395-1501.

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