Not free, but certainly worthwhile, and the high point of my summer so far, was a sunset kayak tour around and through the Norfolk Botanical Gardens the other night with our adventurous friends Bonnie and Dave. It didn't hurt that the weather happened to be perfect (for once), but it also opened my eyes to the fact that our local garden has come a long way in the last few years. No longer simply a display of azaleas and camellias, this is now a spectacular series of gardens which is designed for four seasons of interest. My favorite part of the trip was paddling through the main canal of the garden, which is now planted with hardy(ish) "tropicals" including oleander, musa basjoo, crinums, colocasias, and other unusual plants suited to the microclimate afforded by this protected site. Being in a kayak allows one to see these plantings from a perspective unavailable during a regular garden visit, especially now that the garden's fleet of tour boats has been grounded for the season due to structural issues (the vessels do strongly resemble the "African Queen", and I think they're of approximately the same vintage.) The kayak tours are only available one Thursday evening per month, from May through September, and I highly recommend this enjoyable experience.
Although the garden and greenhouse will be fending for themselves for six days next week, I've learned that preparation for an absence of this length is much easier than doing so for a long stretch. I don't worry about finding somebody to water (which hasn't worked very well in the past, anyway - it's just impossible to teach people to do that properly unless they themselves are seasoned gardeners), and I just keep my fingers crossed that there'll be a nice, solid rain somewhere during that time frame. I do plan to spend a large amount of time this week pulling everything out of the greenhouse which might suffer from a week without water and getting the last of the 4" pots either potted (I've resorted to grouping things together haphazardly in big plastic pots, at least temporarily; some of these end up looking better by the end of the season than anything I consciously plan), planted out, or given away. I also need to do some cutting back and outright removal of Salvia guaranitica "Black and Blue"; it is a great perennial here, attracting hummingbirds far better than feeders or trumpet vine (which I do allow to grow on the back fence - at this point it's providing some structural support as well), but it's already 4 feet high. It usually gets whacked back by half several times each summer. I also grow the standard species, which has green calyxes rather than "black" (it's pictured here with one of the perennial Lathyrus species), and the very attractive pale blue "Argentina Skies", which does very well despite being driven over (it's next to the driveway) a few times each year.