Looking for new inspiration? Those who plant at local museums would love you to steal their ideas. Really.
Winterthur is famous for its gardens of native plants
Photograph by Stromberg-Gunther
When Chris Strand and his family visited Winterthur Museum & Country Estate in 2004, he was awed by the acres of spring bulbs that joyfully crowded March Bank, Winterthur’s oldest-surviving garden area. Like an Impressionistic painting, the slope was awash with a mélange of mostly blues and purples. There were glory-of-the-snow, crocuses, snowdrops and squills. But here and there, a patch of daffodils bobbed in the breeze, punctuating the landscape with their showy yellow petals.
The color combination caught Strand’s eye, so he replicated the arrangement, on a much smaller scale, in the backyard of his Washington, D.C.-area townhouse. “We planted a couple hundred glory-in-the-snow, squills—which have that blue color—and miniature daffodils,” he recalls. “It was pretty cheap to do in a small spot.”
Today Strand is the director of garden and estate at Winterthur, and his home adjoins a meadow. “There are a lot of lessons I take home from Winterthur about how to butt up against a pasture and make it work in your own landscape,” he says. “Another lesson I apply is working hard to have a succession of blooms in the garden so there’s no extended dead period.”
Like Strand, many Winterthur staff members “borrow” ideas from the estate, and you can too.
Indeed, public gardens are a valuable resource if you know what to look for, and there are distinct advantages to seeing flowers and shrubs against a backdrop of complementary plants—something that’s often hard to envision while walking through a retail nursery. What’s more, strolling through the lush landscape is a lot more fun than paging through magazines. At Winterthur, March Bank offers ideas for people with deciduous trees. Because the bulbs pop before the tree leaves unfurl, you can enjoy color in what is normally a bare spot. Once the leaves come out, the bulbs finish blooming. The March Bank bulbs, which originally come from the Middle East, prefer dry conditions, so they’re happy to share water with thirsty tree roots.
Winterthur is also an excellent resource if you’re interested in rhododendrons. “I tend not to like pink azaleas,” Strand says. “But we have pink color combinations that are terrific. Now I’m looking at them and saying, ‘We should put pink around that slope near my driveway at home.’ It’s an opportunity to use something I never would have before.”
Winterthur’s Winterhazel Walk offers the contrast of yellow winterhazels and rosy-lavender Korean rhododendrons. Perennials include corydalis and primroses. The largely shrub-based area not only offers homeowners some low-maintenance options, but it also inspires gardeners who are interested in adding texture to their beds.
Along with shade and meadow, Winterthur has several treed areas, especially around the house. “The Winterthur garden has always had a romantic relationship with the woodland,” Strand says.
“Romantic” or “relaxed” also describe garden designs that emulate nature, which is exactly what you’ll find on the property owned by The Brandywine Conservancy, which operates the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford.
“It’s not strictly representing nature per se, but it’s using the plants in a naturalistic manner,” says Mark Gormel, horticultural coordinator for the Brandywine Conservancy. “It’s certainly not formal or symmetrical.”
The property is dedicated to native plants, which are frequently defined as plants that were present before the bulk of Europeans settlers arrived. Diehard enthusiasts limit the list to plants that were here prior to Christopher Columbus.
At the Brandywine River Museum, expect to see buttery yellow flowers called sundrops, which nod on stems with pointed leaves. In July the gardens become vibrant with orange Turk’s cap lilies and coneflowers, whose prickly dark centers are beacons for butterflies and gold finches. “Anywhere you look on campus there is something to see,” Gormel says.
Displays near the parking lots are on a larger scale. To garner ideas for your home garden, check out the Environmental Management Center and its neighboring structures. “Those buildings are more residential in scale,” Gormel says. “Gardens are a little more intricate.”
If your yard gets soggy in wet weather, investigate the detention basin across from the museum. The basin was installed in the 1970s to filter runoff from the parking lot, which can contain pollutants. Plants here relish “wet feet,” yet they also thrive in July and August, when the ground gets so dry it cracks.
The Brandywine Conservancy is so dedicated to native plants that it offers seedlings year round in the museum gift shop. “Using these plants allows your garden to function on a higher level than just visual beauty alone,” Gormel says. “You’re allowing your property to participate in relationships that go back thousands of years.”
Longwood Gardens’ Peirce’s Woods also demonstrates how gardeners can work with native plants. The dedicated area displays the ornamental characteristics of the Eastern deciduous forest, which includes oak, ash, maple and tulip trees, native shrubs and native ground-cover plantings.
The garden also features native plants from the Piedmont Plateau, which runs between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains. The narrow strip arcs from Alabama up into Pennsylvania and New Jersey. (We live in the northern section.)
Like Winterthur, Peirce’s Woods provides some shady suggestions. “There is a huge burst of color in springtime before the leaves dominate. That is how the deciduous forest works,” says Rodney Eason, display leader at Longwood Gardens.
Homeowners with an acre or more of land, meanwhile, should note Longwood’s remarkable tree collection. There you can see what a tree will look like when it reaches full maturity. You can also explore how it fits into a landscape with shrubs and plantings.
Eason also encourages gardeners to note how Longwood now mulches around trees. To discourage grass from hogging all the water and nutrients during a dry season, extend the mulch ring to the drip line, where the rainwater falls from the leaves.
Of course, most Longwood visitors are impressed by the striking arrangements. Plants are labeled, so you can note any pleasing color combinations. “You can steal those ideas,” Eason says. “They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Gardens are not limited to flowers, shrubs and trees. They also encompass fruits and vegetables. At Hagley Museum and Library, visitors can see how vegetables and flowering plants coexist peacefully on the nearly 2-acre plot in front of the E.I. du Pont home.
The efficient design—which features beds, gravel paths and a border of fruit trees—is patterned after a French garden, says Hagley horticulturalist Peter Lindtner. Of special interest is the border of dwarf fruit trees trained en quenouille, which requires specialized pruning. Horticulturalists tie branches to stakes to create a cone. You’ll also spot other espalier techniques, including a crisscrossed Belgian fence.
More than 4,000 blossoming tulips announce the start of the spring growing season. They’re accompanied by hyacinths, crocuses, jonquils and trumpet narcissus. In June orange poppies appear. According to family tradition, E.I. du Pont introduced the poppies to America with seeds from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
Lindtner, however, seems most proud of the vegetable plots, which include rhubarb, asparagus, peas, onions, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and turnips.
The gardens at Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania, also include a vegetable garden. But the former estate of Adolph Rosengarten Sr., head of the pharmaceutical company Rosengarten and Sons, is more whimsical than practical.
“We call ourselves a pleasure garden,” says executive director Bill Thomas. “You can come here and escape from the hassles of everyday life.”
Chanticleer opened in 1993, after Adolph Rosengarten Jr. designated it a public garden. Once known for its manicured trees and lawns, the property now pulsates with as much color as an Henri Matisse painting. The focus is on plant combinations, textures and colors. Don’t be surprised to see scarlet tropical flowers against colossal foliage.
The garden art is as exotic as the plants. Near the house, a teacup-shaped fountain in a sunny area is surrounded by heat-loving plants. The look here is purposefully wild, as though you stepped into a steamy jungle. There are banana trees, tropical succulents, pipevine and pineapple lilies.
Children and adults will be fascinated by the ruin garden, built on the foundation of the house where Adolph Rosengarten Jr. lived most of his life. Though open to the elements, the “house” had clearly defined rooms. In the slate library, books are sculpted of stone. In the “pool room,” marble faces regard visitors from the bottom of a fountain. There is even a mosaic rug of tile, granite and slate in the Great Hall.
Rest on the stone sofa, or take a seat in one of the property’s Adirondack chairs, painted neon green or in a leopard print. Picnics are allowed, and you can easily spend hours here.
On a warm day with the hint of summer in the air, there is no better way to get inspired.
Here are other beautiful gardens that might inspire you.
• Delaware Center for Horticulture A former parks facility, the Center Garden uses a conservation ethic to reuse artifacts such as a granite fountain from the Wilmington Fountain Society in a functional landscape. www.dehort.org
• Goodstay Gardens One of the state’s oldest gardens, Goodstay is located on the grounds of the University of Delaware’s Wilmington campus. The layout is a Tudor style, complete with boxwood-lined rooms and gravel paths. www.udel.edu
• Nemours Mansion & Gardens Scheduled to open by summer, the 300-acre estate has received an overhaul but remains dedicated to the vision of onetime owner Alfred I. duPont. www.nemours.org/mansion
• Mt. Cuba Center This 650-acre horticultural institution is dedicated to the study and conservation of native plants. Not surprisingly, the woodland wildflower gardens are renowned among experts. www.mtcubacenter.org
• George Read House and Garden The 1.5-acre garden was installed by the home's second owner in 1847 and is now the oldest surviving garden in the region. Designed by Robert Buist of Philadelphia, it is divided into three sections: a formal flower garden, a specimen garden of exotic and native plants, and a large fruit orchard and kitchen garden. www.hsd.org
• Rockwood Mansion & Gardens This 6-acre garden will appeal to those who appreciate Victorian designs. www.rockwood.org
Authentic Gardening—and Living
Claire Sawyers, author of “The Authentic Garden: Five Principles for Cultivating a Sense of Place,” advocates taking cues from nature and the surrounding context to create original gardens.
“We’re blessed in northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania with fabulous gardens,” she says. “If someone is interested in gardening, then one of the simplest things to do is visit other gardens and see what you respond to and why.”
As director of Swarthmore College’s Scott Arboretum since 1990, Sawyers also worked at the Mt. Cuba Center for seven years. There she learned to strive for quality, which didn’t require expensive or ostentatious materials. She praises the use of recycled city curbstones to build a bridge in Mt. Cuba’s pond garden.
“It’s an appreciation for the rougher, subtler, more naturalistic—something that blends with and celebrates aspects of nature,” she says.
Sawyers recommends visiting other super examples, such as the Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington, where Rodney Robinson designed the landscape and reused light fixtures as sculptural elements.
Sawyers spent six years of her youth in Japan. She later returned to work with landscapers while completing an undergraduate degree in ornamental horticulture at Purdue University, where she earned a master’s degree in horticulture. In addition to working in gardens in Belgium and France, Sawyers studied public horticulture administration in the Longwood Graduate Program at the University of Delaware and Longwood Gardens.
“Take cues from nature and the context that you’re in. Think about your needs and desires in that space,” she says. “If you start from a sense of confidence to create so it serves your needs, then it will be authentic to the person—and a lot more successful and edifying. That may not seem like a tip for a gardener, but a tip for how to live.” —Andrea K. Hammer