Longwood Gardens enthralling year round


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My garden is sleeping ... finally. But my tribute to Monet's nasturtiums was riotous this year. Their warm-colored blossoms, spilling over and into the pea gravel walkways of my herb garden, perfectly complemented the orange pumpkins of fall. Frost did them in, and they are now feeding the mulch pile to fuel the sprouts of next spring.

If you go
Longwood Gardens
When: Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Nov. 27, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Nov. 28 to Jan. 12 and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 13 to May 23.
Admission: $18 for adults, $15 for senior citizens, $8 for ages 5 to 18 and free to those younger than 5.
Information: longwoodgardens.org.

And so it goes when you garden in Pennsylvania. It is over for the year. Or is it? There is a place in our state, in fact, one of the world's greatest public gardens, just a few hours to our east that never sleeps. Longwood Gardens (http://longwoodgardens.org) in Kennett Square is a 280-mile drive from Pittsburgh. It is a four-season garden, a place where gardeners can gain inspiration and enjoy a green space long after their own gardens have been put to bed

Located on the western side of Philadelphia, Longwood boasts indoor and outdoor gardens plus production greenhouses covering 1,077 acres. The land we today call Longwood Gardens was occupied by the Lenni Lenape tribe for thousands of years. In 1700, it became a working farm when George Peirce purchased the land from William Penn, and in 1730 he built a farmhouse that still stands. Peirce's twin grandsons had an interest in the natural world and began a modest arboretum that included specimens from the entire eastern seaboard as well as overseas.

The 15 acres became known as Peirce's Park. By 1850, it had garnered recognition as one of the finest collections of trees in the country. But passing generations lost interest in the arboretum, and in 1906 the farm and the arboretum were slated to be sold for lumber. Industrialist Pierre S. DuPont, however, stepped in and purchased the land, preserving the Peirce family's treasured plants. DuPont's vision transformed the quaint Quaker farm into a private estate that became one of the most famous public gardens in the world.

The glass conservatory, which Mr. DuPont built in 1921, encompasses 4.5 acres that includes everything from traditional displays such as an orangery and bonsai exhibit to a living green wall. Outside the conservatory one can stroll through a range of gardens devoted to woodland, meadow and cultivated plants. Children will delight in exploring the treehouses and a garden designed especially for them.

The most iconic feature at Longwood is the Fountain Garden, which Mr. DuPont engineered and built in 1931. It was inspired by his visits to fountains in Europe and the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The 5-acre garden and fountain, which recirculates 10,000 gallons of water a minute, is beautifully illuminated. On summer evenings, fireworks and music add to the experience.

The gardens offer visitors something new every season. Longwood hosts world-class horticultural exhibits, dining events, classes, workshops and musical performances. Its resident instruments include the 62-bell carillon housed in the stone Chimes Tower, a 1923 Steinway grand piano and a 10,010-pipe Aeolian organ commissioned by DuPont. The organ is the largest of its type constructed in a residential setting.

Every autumn brings the Chrysanthemum Festival, which is on view in the conservatory through Sunday, and touts the largest thousand-bloom mum in North America, one plant featuring 1,416 perfect yellow flowers. The Japanese technique of Ozukuri trains a single chrysanthemum plant to produce as many perfect blossoms as possible. Another 20,000 chrysanthemums have been trained to resemble clouds, fans and spirals.

Outside, there is also plenty of color. Among the plants displaying beautiful fall foliage and long-lasting berries are sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) and Inchang viburnum (Viburnum inchangense). A grove of our native witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is right outside the visitor center. It is not to be missed.

The equally enchanting "A Longwood Christmas" opens Thanksgiving Day and runs through Jan. 12. It features a water, light and musical performance in the open-air theater garden, plus thousands of lights within the conservatory and on the grounds.

Spring whispers its own song with lovely white snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and blue Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) blooming as the gardens come back to life. The Idea Garden and Flower Garden Walk are planted with hundreds of tulips and other bulbs, creating a rainbow of brilliant color. Meconopsis 'Lingholm,' the elusive Himalayan blue poppy, blooms in March in the orangery and draws many visitors. If you visit sometime between mid-April and mid-May, you'll gaze upon Longwood's famous Wisteria floribunda. These decades-old vines are trained in tiered tree forms and bloom in shades of lavender, purple and white with an aroma that is nothing short of heavenly.

Finally, summer's sweet cadence at Longwood is highlighted by its Fountain Garden and the many activities for visitors to enjoy. View more than 100 types of waterlilies, including Victoria "Longwood hybrid," known as the giant water platters.

Finding a place that brings out the best of all four seasons -- each with its inherent, unique beauty -- is a rare joy. One visit to Longwood, whether it's to view the breathtaking holiday arrangements on display in December, or to soak up the first sweet smells of spring's blossoms, will make you want to return again to experience the next season's offerings. A tribute to the limitless possibilities of flora, horticulture and design year-round, Longwood is truly a garden that never sleeps.

 


Karel Ulizio is a Penn State master gardener.

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