Super secret garden: Pennsylvania's Welkinweir

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POTTSTOWN, Pa. -- "Welkin" is old English for dome of heaven; "weir" means body of water.

Put them together, and you have some idea of the panorama at Welkinweir, the 197-acre estate and public garden in northern Chester County, Pa. This truly is "where sky meets water," a big picture window of a place whose beauty rivals any of the region's other historic mansions, arboretums, wildlife habitats and gardens.

So how come it's such a secret?

After about a decade of being open for guided group tours, Welkinweir draws only a few thousand visitors a year. That compares to 91,000 at the 92-acre Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia and 750,000 at the 1,050-acre Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

Director Victoria E. Laubach says Welkinweir doesn't advertise and, in truth, couldn't accommodate many more guests.

"Because I'm it," she says. "I'm the staff."

During its heyday as a private residence, the estate had four house servants and a half-dozen groundskeepers. Today, Laubach, a Pennsylvania State University horticulture grad, works full time doing all the administration, grant-writing and finances. Her base budget is about $115,000 a year.

She's also the tour guide and works outside, aided by two summer interns and an arborist, as needed.

"At least I don't have to do all the mowing," she says, laughing. (You get the feeling she's about to add, "Not yet, anyway.")

In the tradition of families who left their estates to the public trust, like the Morrises and, at Longwood, the du Ponts, Welkinweir was at first a country home, then the permanent residence of Grace and Everett Rodebaugh. They were graduates of West Philadelphia High School and the University of Pennsylvania, residents of Rosemont who made a fortune with a court reporting and stenography business in Philadelphia.

They bought Welkinweir in 1935 during the Depression, when it was a declining farm, and spent decades improving the house and replanting native trees and meadows. (That would be between their seven round-the-world cruises!)

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the nonprofit Welkinweir is owned today by the conservation-minded Green Valleys Association, which was founded by the Rodebaughs and has its headquarters at the estate.

It's a quiet neighbor along Prizer Road in East Nantmeal Township. Driving up, you'd never guess what's beyond the sign. You can't imagine the treasure.

And that might not be a bad thing.

"There's such an abundance of wildlife," Laubach says, "we're trying to strike a balance between protecting what's out here and getting people to know it -- without loving it to death."

Made of local fieldstone, the house was designed by Philadelphia architect Fridtjof Tobiessen and built in 1940 around two earlier sections dating to 1750 and 1830. It's in the Colonial Revival style, meant to blend into the site's natural beauty and promote relaxed country living.

The house is about 12,000 square feet, which would hold its own against a McMansion, with five bedrooms, seven full or half-baths, 13 fireplaces, and assorted other spaces including third-floor living quarters for the help.

Only the first floor is open to visitors, but who needs more? It has white pine floorboards, sterling-silver wall sconces, and the crazy-fun Skinner theater organ, with 1,300 pipes hidden beyond the foyer's 20-foot ceiling.

This, and the photos showing guests cavorting in Hawaiian hula outfits, convince us that the Rodebaughs truly were party animals. "This is what you can do when you don't have kids," Laubach likes to joke.

The grass skirts are long retired, but the organ plays its kooky tremolo for guests for Mother's Day, Christmas, and the occasional wedding.

So, you walk into the living room, which is wealthy-casual, nice and roomy. (Martini, dahling?) And there it is -- the giant picture window that explains everything.

You can see to the bottom of the hill, to the six-acre Great Pond, one of seven, where the Rodebaughs and guests used to row and fish. Today, it's alive with sunnies, bass and blue gills; black, garter and water snakes; painted and snapping turtles; Canada geese; and more whirring blue dragonflies than you can count.

Soon, we're standing on a wooden bridge Monet would love. Gleaming white water lilies with yellow centers are bobbing before us in intense colonies. A warm breeze riffles trees along the shore, and we're positively hypnotized into lethargy.

We tear ourselves away and head back through the meadows dotted with stands of upright joe-pye and wild white yarrow, frothy milkweed, and orange butterfly weed. They're crawling with frenzied butterflies.

How "can they call the great spangled fritillary common?

Welkinweir is known for its Azalea Lane and barn ruins, native plants and trees, tiered ponds, and hiking. The Horse-Shoe Trail runs through it.

But Laubach gives equal time to the flying squirrels and chipmunks, red foxes and pileated woodpeckers, coyotes and songbirds of every kind. Frogs, bats, it's all here in a roaring daylight circus. Starry night skies to come.

Awesome.

Laubach grins. "I love my job."

HOW THIS GARDEN GROWS: OLD, BIG

Like other gardeners, "Vik" Laubach, Welkinweir's director, sees a lot of dwarf this and compact that in the new plant catalogs. She prefers big and old.

"This is the place to come if you want to see how things are going to look after a long time," she says.

Large, mature trees are one of the estate's trademarks: native, Japanese and swamp sugar maples, sweet and sour gums, Franklinias and magnolias, redbuds, dogwoods and cherries.

Even the azaleas, another trademark, tower over Azalea Lane in its springtime prime.

Laubach isn't a "strict native-plant person," but she likes the natives' hardiness and adaptability. And beauty.

Native azaleas -- Laubach especially likes pale yellow "Lemon Drop" -- bloom in summer rather than spring, and tend to be taller and more yellow, orange and white than pink and purple. They also have a longer flower shape, like honeysuckle, smell sweet, and lose their leaves in winter, which seems to deter deer.

Good deal.

Welkinweir is pretty much all organic. Mulch is made from downed twigs, branches and leaves, and insecticidal soap is used on indomitable pests like the woolly adelgid, which devastated the hemlocks.

Poison ivy seems impervious to everything but Roundup, but at Welkinweir it's targeted and used sparingly.

Some other thoughts, courtesy of Laubach:

Prune low branches on dense trees like yews. This lightens the look and allows you to put shade-lovers like hosta, hellebores, Solomon's seal and corydalis underneath.

Use surgical gloves and knee pads when weeding. Do a different spot, if not task, every day to ward off carpal tunnel problems.

Let animals be. At Welkinweir, deer feed mostly on corn and soybeans elsewhere, but bats and frogs eat the skeeters, foxes prey on the Canada geese, and, the arborist is told, "If you find a bird's nest, stop." (Woodchucks, on the other hand, are trapped.)

And let plants be plants. Laubach doesn't do espalier or topiaries. Or the long commute. She bikes to work -- all six miles.

MORE INFORMATION:

(610) 469-7543 or http://www.greenvalleys.org/welkinweir.asp



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