I had to pick my son and his friends up at the Philadelphia airport yesterday, so I decided to make a mini-vacation out of it, and stopped at two gardens over two days: Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia, which is the historic site of John Bartram's 18th-century house (still there; I haven't been inside yet over two visits, but they do have tours) and the garden in which he planted many of his finds among the American flora; and Chanticleer.
I'll start with the latter because it's much more spectacular. It was a splendid day to be there, because it rained in the morning, which scared away most of whatever visitors were going to come on a weekday, but then stayed cool and pleasant (and intermittently dark-cloudy). There were some busloads of tourists in the afternoon, but it never felt crowded. I think I covered pretty much all the territory in my several hours there, including exploring lots of side paths; it's all beautifully designed for wandering off and finding things.
It occurred to me that somehow I've usually visited large public gardens in relatively off-season times, like late September or early April, and it's really nice to go to one (especially one of the most beautiful) when many plants are in bloom and everything is lush with the growth of a rainy spring (but they've had time to clean up from winter). There are all kinds of lovely pictures of the place online; I was just taking snaps with my phone, so didn't capture anything special, but here are a few impressions of things I liked best.
The "ruin garden" was delightful, with a lot of the whimsy and self-referential humor I like in garden design, and also just beautiful, with unexpected corners and surprises along with spectacles, like one of the entrances here with the vast climbing hydrangea.
Here's a vista from a bit below there, with the serpentine grass plots in the distance:
And a closeup of the grass. I'm not sure what kind it is - possibly a sort of oats, since it's supposed to be a tribute to the beauty of agriculture or something.
Speaking of which, at some point public gardens are going to put the vegetable gardens front and center, but at least more of them actually have them now. Chanticleer's admits to being only part of the area originally used for growing the estate's produce, but it is nicely arranged, and has an intriguing living gate, through which you can see the cut-flower garden:
They did a lot with living fences and borders, low hoops made of the wood of various plants (I recognized a honeysuckle in one place) that must have been cut and then stuck into the ground immediately so they'd root in place. I also liked some of their takes on paths:
That's just sections of one-inch lumber laid in the ground. I looked at it and thought "I could do this!" and then thought again and realized that the soil between would be all weeds before I turned around, but it's a nice idea. (Chanticleer, of course, has Staff.)
Also, by the way, they have a couple of the more beautiful restrooms I've been in. And wandering through the bamboo on the way to the one in the Asian Woods was great fun. But, interestingly enough, there is no gift shop or cafe, and I was there for four hours with only a small apple and a handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans and water. I'm not sure if that's refreshing or discouraging.
Here's the poppy hill, which was much prettier even than it looks in this photo:
And a closeup of the buds of what I'm pretty sure is Magnolia sieboldii. Such perfect teardrops.
The plants are not labeled, I suppose because it's "a pleasure garden" and having to read things takes away from the pleasure somehow (personally, I enjoy avoidance of the frustration of not knowing names), but in some areas there are plant lists in boxes. I don't know, dear reader, if you find yourself in this position, but for me it's difficult sometimes to stop myself from identifying plants for others when they seem confused. I did manage not to interrupt the conversation I passed early in my visit that I think was misidentifying purple ninebark as elderberry; there is a dark-leafed and very pretty variety of that latter useful thug, but it was not present in that part of the garden. The two plants did in fact show up across from each other in another place, so hopefully the misidentifyers got to compare them later. But then, while attempting to read a murder mystery on a bench near the cut-flower garden, I was surrounded by some of the talkative bus crowd, and found myself jumping in to tell them that the orange flower they were exclaiming over was calendula, and yes it had been also over in the vegetable garden because it's edible. And then they asked me if I worked there. No, I just grow things and know what they are? Though of course I don't know what everything is, so labels would be nice.
They do have labels at Bartram's Garden; they also have weeds (Chanticleer really doesn't, as far as I noticed, and I tend to notice) and in general it's not as gorgeous, but one really wouldn't want it to be, because that would take away from the feeling of it being one family's personal playground for new botanical discoveries. I have a bit of a Thing about William Bartram, which may end up being a novel someday, but anyway the best thing about going there is not the flowerbeds and soil-poor vegetable garden or even the strolling through the woods; it's the thrill of the oldest surviving gingko in North America, and the franklinia that John and William discovered and named and grew from seed while the last ones in the wild perished, and this yellowwood:
which probably dates from the 1790s and is delectably gnarled. It's the connection; the feeling that you sort of know and understand the person who planted the seed, even though he died centuries ago. Which you don't get at a large public garden, even if it used to belong to a rich family (I mean, I feel a connection to the gardeners who work there, and you can even talk to them, but it's rather different), or at Monticello, though they are doing better at giving us a connection to the enslaved people who did most of the actual work, even if Jefferson had some of the visions.
So, both of these places wow me, in different ways. It was a good trip!