One-off imaginations have turned these gardens into offbeat wonderlands. Get your green on and go wandering!
1. Las Pozas, Mexico
Edward James was born to a fabulously wealthy family and for years lived it up as a patron of the arts, sponsoring many of the surrealists and helping found the New York City Ballet. But a yearning for Eden saw him give it all away and head for Mexico in search of his perfect garden. He spent the rest of his life transforming Las Pozas (in the northern mountains, named for the descending river pools on the property) into his dream jungle paradise, and making immense concrete surrealist sculptures and follies to adorn it.
Stay at the romantic El Castillo – it's walking distance from Las Pozas.
2. William Ricketts Sanctuary, Australia
Head up to green Mt Dandenong, near Melbourne, to find this whimsical sculpture garden. It's the work of William Ricketts, an Australian artist with a before-his-time bent for environmental and Indigenous issues. He spent a lot of his life living in Aboriginal communities in central Australia before settling in the Dandenongs. Some think his sculptures of Aboriginal people as spirits of the land are twee, but set among the ferns and mountain ash they have a tranquillity and power, seeming to grow right out of their surroundings. Ricketts lived here into his 90s, sculpting to the last.
The park is open from 10am to 4.30pm daily, with the exception of Christmas Day.
3. Chandigarh Rock Garden, India
From little things… Nek Chand, a government official, was clearing himself a small garden and used the rubble to make a wall and a couple of sculptures. It seems he was hooked: over the ensuing years, working at night and in his spare time, he fashioned a fantastic edifice of found-object mosaics. It was eventually discovered by authorities, who liked it so much they not only spared it, but gave Chand a salary and helpers to keep building. Today it's a junk Alhambra, with waterfalls and thousands of sculptures of animals and dancing girls set in arched mosaic courtyards.
4. Giardino dei Tarocchi, Italy
When you think 'Tuscan garden', you probably don't think this. Niki de Saint Phalle, an autodidact artist and sculptor (and, in her day, actor and model) created it over years, basing it around the figures of the tarot cards. As you'd expect from someone who as a girl painted the fig leaves on the school statues red, the sculpture garden is a larger-than-life riot of joyous, bulbous figures. Highlights are the Magician with his gaping mouth and mirrored face, the exuberant Sun, the Moon upheld by crabs and dogs, and the massive pink High Priestess.
5. Tilford Cottage Garden, England
Artist Rod Burn and his wife Pamela, a holistic therapist, created this garden around their 17th-century cottage in Surrey, and at first glance it seems like a typical charming English concoction, with a bog garden, a wild garden and a Victorian knot garden. But that's before you spot the (steel) giraffe looming out of the trees or notice the (topiary) figure falling head-first into a hedge. Or the tree with its bole painted gold. Or the apple orchard growing parallel to the ground. As well as sculptures and visual gags scattered around the place, the plants themselves have been tweaked out of the usual: check out the birch trees twisted into a screen.
The garden is open to groups of six or more. It's best to make a reservation.
6. Owl Garden, South Africa
Miss Helen, who created a private world of her own in her house and garden, is a classic example of an outsider artist. She was a recluse in the conservative village of Nieu Bethesda; she shunned company and was regarded with suspicion. She decorated her house with lovely, outlandish murals made from coloured glass. In 1964 she hired a sheepshearer, Koos Malgas, to help her construct a sculpture garden of camels, shepherds, donkeys and sheep, all facing east. The owl was her totem figure and she used it over and over again. At the end of her life, fearing she was going blind, she killed herself – by ingesting crushed glass.
Give the Owl House a call on 049 8411 733 to arrange your visit.
7. Jardin Rosa Mir, France
Something like a homemade Parc Güell, the Jardin Rosa Mir in Lyon is the creation of Jules Senis, a Spanish tiler who dreamed up the garden and vowed to make it a reality while he was in hospital battling cancer. The garden is named after his mother. It's not large, but makes up for that by being crowded with found materials (rocks, shells, coral, even snail shells) that make elaborate mosaics on walls and pillars. Teamed with lemon trees, succulents, ivy and geraniums, the effect is surprisingly charming.
The Jardin Rosa Mir is on Grand Rue de la Croix Rousse in the 4th arrondissement of Lyon; admission is free.
8. Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, Pennsylvania, USA
Isaiah and Julia Zagar are mosaic evangelists. They moved to Philly's South Street neighbourhood in the 1960s, took a look around, and evidently thought ‘this place could use some colour!'. At the time the district was in decline, and the couple were able to buy several derelict buildings. They did them up with bright mosaics inside and out. Isaiah Zagar's biggest work is the Magic Gardens, which he built on a vacant lot near his house – a mammoth mosaic labyrinth incorporating local trash, mirrors and tiles. It depicts events from his own life and world history. When the owners tried to sell the site, the community rallied to save the Gardens.
9. Millesgården, Sweden
This is a dreamy space outside Stockholm, something like a Swedish Isola Bella. The home of Carl and Olga Milles, both artists, it was created by them and Carl's architect half-brother Evert. It transforms a rocky slope into a series of terraces gracefully leading the eye downwards and littered with architectural finds like the marble archway from a hotel. Milles' sculptures – immense saints, gods and angels held aloft on pillars –
hold sway on the lower terraces. The most touching part of the garden is Little Austria, a loving recreation of Olga's much-missed homeland.
The garden features white urns designed by Milles. You can buy flowerpots based on them in the Millesgården shop.
10. Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens, Georgia, USA
This one's a gift from god. Finster was a Southern preacher who received a vision telling him to make art, and, untrained as he was, that was what he went ahead and did. His paintings are done in a naive style, often with text; for Finster, the art was all about the message. The Paradise Gardens are a jumble of mosaic materials (bottles, mirrors) and found objects: everything and the kitchen sink, and the bathtub, too. There's a chapel and a folk art gallery. It might not be everyone's idea of paradise, but you're sure to find something you like.
Just before Finster died, he put up a note in the Gardens asking that they be preserved. If you'd like to donate, visit www.finstersparadisegardens.org.