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Virtual garden tours can teach, entertain, entice

When you can't visit in person, go online.

By Dean FosdickThe Associated Press / February 11, 2009

US Botanic Garden: Gardeners can visit virtually as well as in person.

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Travel is a great way to top off an education, especially for gardeners, who can pick up landscape and planting ideas and advice by seeing others' gardens. But they don't have to leave home to do it.

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Virtual garden tours on the computer show actual gardens through video or still images, music, narration, and text. About the only thing missing is the scent of the flowers as they scroll by.

Some cybertours are informational, posted mainly to answer gardening questions. Others are designed to entertain, the digital equivalent of coffee table books or travelogues.

Still others are therapeutic and chatty, providing welcome bursts of color and commentary during the dark winter months.

Some are so enticing that viewers may be motivated to rise from their chairs and plan a real visit. Directions are included on most websites.

For the tours' sponsors and creators, there are many benefits. Educational institutions or public gardens use virtual tours to boost donations, enlist public support, or build enrollment.

Here's a partial listing of interesting virtual tours:
- For children: Cultivate this Michigan State University virtual garden. Or tour this kids' garden developed by Smith College.

- Private gardens: A woman whose children call her "Moosey" has created an easy-to-follow site that helps move you through her New Zealand country garden. It also contains helpful sections about flower shows, containers, flower bulbs and more.

- Public gardens: The US. Botanic Garden. "We know a lot of people can't get here, but this might give them a sense of what they'd see if they could," says Christine Flanagan, a spokeswoman for the US Botanic Garden in Washington. "We plan to add a plant collection database with visuals in the near future."

A similar site is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England.

- Tourist sites centered around prominent gardens: From your home you can visit virtually the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet's gardens at Giverny, in upper Normandy,where he drew much of his inspiration.

Or take a virtual tour of the 60 acres of the riverside gardens at Hampton Court Palace in southeast England, a property once owned by King Henry VIII.

- Here's a blog about self-guided and virtual garden tours.

- Institutional/Educational: University of Florida Indian River Research and Education Center at Fort Pierce.

"Virtual tours and virtual labs are something that is becoming more and more necessary at the University of Florida as we are delivering many courses via distance education," says Sandra Wilson of the university's Department of Environmental Horticulture.

"I teach courses to students located throughout the state. The virtual garden tour brings the gardens to them, as it is impossible for most students to travel here."

See also the Missouri Botanical Garden. That brings you a six-minute virtual tour plus garden overview and garden detail tours.

Or enjoy a virtual walk through the botanic garden at Oxford University.

"Aside from teaching, it seems like virtual tours are commonly used now by Realtors, bed and breakfasts, and others," Ms. Wilson says.