By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, October 4, 2007
When a drought has sucked all the life out of one's garden, sometimes the only option is to climb into a car and find a first-rate public garden to get the sap coursing again.
I'd recommend a place that has had access to water (a valuable resource, yes, but renewable in this part of the world); sufficient gardening staff to make your back twinge in jealousy; and a place with imagination and whimsy.
One garden that fits the bill, in spades, is Chanticleer, which was carved out of an old-money estate in Wayne in Philadelphia's Main Line and opened in 1993.
Named for a fabled medieval rooster, Chanticleer has much to crow about: How many public restrooms do you know that have fresh-flower arrangements? Or a loo in the woods that resembles a Japanese teahouse?
Another signature structure is a mock ruined house, made with the finest of materials and given such artistic touches as stone masks under a fountain and a black banquet table topped with a shimmering sheet of water. Daphne du Maurier meets Edward Gorey. The stonework frames artful plant groupings. In one of many corners in this macabre feature, the willowy, fine-textured horsetail is played against the coarser fastigiate form of Japanese plum yew. Behind, a dwarf variety of southern magnolia brings more textural interest and tension.
The seven-year-old ruin is a signature feature of Chanticleer, the brainchild of its first director, Chris Woods. Now under the artful direction of Bill Thomas, the 33-acre garden has mellowed and matured and really leaves no corner of horticulture untouched or unexplored.
The gardeners at Chanticleer are on a mission to create garden areas that exist simply, though not merely, to please. To look, smell and feel beautiful. No one here is urging the visitor to save the honeybee, banish exotic weeds or reduce greenhouse gases. Sometimes, to borrow from Freud, a garden is just a garden.
The second compelling aspect is that the old barriers that separated plants by type -- annuals here, shrubs there, hothouse plants yonder -- have been erased so that the driving force is what looks good together. Yes, you still have to group plants by similar cultural needs, and they should look harmonious, but Chanticleer proves that you could do that with unfettered imagination. Blurring the lines these days is not unique to Chanticleer, but it is done with such panache here.
In one rectangular bed in partial shade, one of the gardeners has had a lot of fun this year playing with leaf textures and forms in different shades of green and chartreuse. The composition features the mounding Japanese hakone grass, tender maidenhair ferns, a yellow variety of Monterey cypress and a cranesbill called Geranium maderense. Only the hakone grass would make it through the winter outside, but they all look great together.
There are two main houses on the estate. The smaller, built in 1935 as a wedding present from estate owner Adolph Rosengarten Sr. to his daughter, Emily, features hardy and tender plants in a late-season frenzy against the creamy stuccoed facade of the house. Here, in the Tea Cup Garden, the rosemary leafed willow is trained high against the wall, and one bed displays the pairing of a maroon flowered sage, Salvia splendens vanhoutii, with a fall flowering shrub with lacy white flowers, Fallopia japonicum. Nearby, the large-leafed rice paper plant ( Tetrapanax) adds to the whole feeling of being in a plant wonderland.
The main house, built in 1913, has broader terraces, planted with wonderful combinations of tropicals, including pawpaw trees in fruit and a huge taro variety named Colocasia gigantea Thailand Giant. I was touring the garden with seasoned horticulturists from Washington who were drooling over novel plants, including a cuphea named Samba, with deep red-scarlet petals, and an annual named justicia with white and pale blue candlestick-like blossoms.
Other plants that stuck with me were a simple but elegant single yellow dahlia named Party, five feet tall and festooned with buttery blossoms against black leaves, and zinnias, once considered old hat but still a valuable late-season plant that takes a licking and draws butterflies like crazy.
In the cut flower and vegetable garden, gardener Doug Struck was bringing to maturity several obscure Asian gourds that were draping the rabbit fence around his tomato patch. One vine held aloft three huge green gourds. The variety is called Nippon Island or Japanese Pie winter squash, depending on the mail order source.
The older one gets, the more one values hydrangeas for their late-season decoration. The paniculata variety Tardiva is only now coming into bloom. The shrubs ringing the gravel forecourt of the mansion are macrophylla or serrata hybrids, and although the precise cultivar names have been lost, they have some Tokyo Delight in their blood. The petals are tinged wine red in September and October.
The hillside between the ruin and the lower ponds is an example of how to landscape an area that is exposed, sunny and free-draining. A place suited, in short, for plants that would fare better than most in a drought year like this one.
Here, you see the grass calamagrostis, tall and strawlike, used to bring repeating forms to the hill, interplanted with purple coneflowers, perovskia, agastache and asters, including the stupendous clear blue variety of the last, named October Skies.
Again, though, it is the odder plants that resonate. Instead of the common hardy yucca, Yucca filamentosa, there is a pair of the rarer and more tender Yucca rostrata. They form two spiky globes perhaps three feet across and have yet to rise up on their trunks, as they do with age.
Alongside the yuccas was a tender perennial herb named Bulbine frutscens with orange flowers on wiry, unruly stems. Elsewhere on the hillside, pink muhly grass was interplanted with yellow California poppies.
Toward the end of my visit, I saw ground covers planted in the dry shade of a tree. One was a massing of the foamflower next to the Labrador violet. Next to them was a grouping of bristle leafed sedge, Carex eburnea. Fast-forward the brain to next spring, when the foamflower will bring a white froth to the lapping blue of the violets and the sedge will burst forth a bright green. Here is a garden, I thought, that luxuriates in the unabashed joy of plants. Heading back down Interstate 95 and with a notebook of ideas, facing one's own disastrous garden again didn't seem quite as depressing.
Chanticleer Garden, a three-hour drive from Washington, is open through Nov. 4, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday. 786 Church Rd., Wayne, Pa. 610-687-4163.http://www.chanticleergarden.org.