One of the ways gardeners learn to be better gardeners is by visiting other gardens. No matter how grand or modest the garden, there is always something to learn. Public gardens in particular are great places to get new ideas, and we are lucky in Pennsylvania to be graced with one of the finest, Chanticleer.
Located in Wayne, a suburb of Philadelphia, Chanticleer is a jewel among estate and public gardens. Although it is closed until April, now is the time to begin making plans for a visit. Whether you're a beginner or experienced gardener, you'll find inspiration and practical tips throughout its 48 rolling acres and even non-gardeners can appreciate this unique blend of horticulture, artistry and emotion.
Aptly billed as a "pleasure garden," Chanticleer is the gift of Adolf Rosengarten Jr., whose family was in the pharmaceutical business. Mr. Rosengarten, who loved trees, made provisions before his death in 1990 to maintain the estate as a public garden. It is the large majestic trees that give this relatively young garden a feeling of permanence and age.
"Our vision for Chanticleer is to be one of the most beautiful gardens in the world while maintaining the feel of a private garden," says executive director William Thomas. "We want each person to feel like a special guest of the Rosengartens."
Mr. Thomas said the garden has a strong educational component, allowing close study of plants, plant culture, combinations, containers, design and the use of structure and furniture. Because Chanticleer is smaller than most public gardens, it is more similar in scale to visitors' gardens, he added.
Each horticulture staffer takes responsibility for an area of the garden, handling accession, installation and maintenance, horticulturist Dan Benarcik said
"They develop a connection with the garden and its rhythms and in time fully understand its light, shade, and soil as well as nutrient needs. You have to work in a garden for a few years to understand these cycles. They become experts on these gardens," he said.
Even experienced gardeners visit Chanticleer repeatedly, looking for new plants, unusual cultivars and interesting designs and combinations of plants to get their creative juices flowing.
"Chanticleer is my favorite garden because every time you go, you see something different," said Stephanie Cohen, a Philadelphia-area garden writer and lecturer.
Here is a sneak peek at some of the public garden's sections:
Tucked behind one of the estate houses, this garden is named for the central fountain. It is a kaleidoscope of plantings that change throughout the season and sets the tone for the creative and interesting experience ahead. During the growing season, you might find unusual containers of herbs and vegetables on the patio and masses of colorful flowers and foliage around the teacup fountain. There is a cool shady grotto and seating areas surrounded by lush tropicals.
You approach this garden from above, down a wide flight of stone steps that have narrow planters filled with changing palettes of plants. The large triangular space, which was once used for tennis, is divided into five geometric spaces, but the formality ends there. Each bed is filled with an amazing display of plants whose color, texture and form play off one another and change through the seasons. The garden is bounded on the other side by a large arbor draped with climbing roses and other vines,= and a big glider underneath where you feel you could sit for hours.
The terraces around Chanticleer House are a sophisticated and serene oasis. It's easy to imagine well-dressed party-goers from long ago spilling out from the house into these spaces, or being a weekend guest enjoying the tranquility of the covered patio. Tropical plantings are lush and combinations of flowers and foliage are bold and interesting. Handmade rocking chairs, works of art in themselves, invite you to sit in the shade of a huge linden tree and enjoy the commanding view of the gardens beyond.
This moody space is one that sets Chanticleer apart, for few public gardens dare to boldly evoke feelings of mystery and decay. The garden is framed by the footprint of a former estate house. Various "furnishings" within the ruin hint at the former home, and plantings throughout take the place of ornament. In this space, plants are skillfully used to portray the passage of time.
Because this is the farthest corner of the property, make sure you save time and energy to visit this area. It is shady and richly planted with tall American trees and Asian shrubs and perennials. You tend to stroll slowly in this garden because the paths are narrow and there are so many plants to look at below and above as you walk. A stream is a constant companion winding through the garden, which features several secluded seating areas and a beautiful hand-made bridge.
Plan to spend no less than a half day at Chanticleer. It takes a full day to really see it all. And take time to sit in the wonderful handmade chairs and benches scattered throughout the garden. There is no place to buy food or drinks, but you are encouraged to bring your own and picnic at one of the several designated picnic areas. Information: www.chanticleergarden.org or 1-610-687-4163.
Martha Swiss is a Penn State Master Gardener. Columns by master gardeners will sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.