Gardening columnist

Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school near Philadelphia, held its commencement ceremonies in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater last year. (Laurence Kesterson/Swarthmore College)

From the earliest days of higher education, the sages understood the importance of a contemplative environment for study and learning. Plato had his olive grove of Akademia, Christian monks turned inward to the verdant cloister, and Thomas Jefferson built his academy around the Lawn at the University of Virginia.

It is no accident that many of the nation’s top universities hold their graduation ceremonies this month outdoors, in the designed landscape. Perhaps no other institution has embraced this ideal more than Swarthmore College, the small liberal arts college 10 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

Established by Quakers in 1864 and co-ed from the start, the college includes an arboretum celebrated for its horticultural excellence and display. Created in 1929, the Scott Arboretum grants Swarthmore’s 1,500 students an academic life immersed in the plant kingdom, although the arboretum welcomes visitors as well. Covering about 300 acres, it fuses three key elements: an arboretum of old and rare trees, a series of designed gardens around and among the college buildings, and a group of major plant collections that include magnolias, flowering cherries, hydrangeas and tree peonies. Add to that an adjoining 220-acre native hardwood forest — Crum Woods — and you reach the idea that if any place can take young and curious minds out of the digital universe and back into the physical world, it is here.

“When the weather gets nice out, you see people reading outside under the trees rather than inside in the library with a laptop,” said Kate Crowley, 22, a graduating senior. “And yeah, with real books.”

Sometimes, the gardens function as an outdoor classroom — exquisitely at the Science Center, where the outer wall of one building doubles as a chalkboard.

Another senior, Bennett Thompson, recalls a biology class in which students measured the carrying qualities of birdsong depending on the environment. The call of woodland species, he discovered, travels better in Crum Woods than in the Nason Garden. The latter is a courtyard landscape planted for its leaf textures and seasonal interest in fall and winter. Among plants chosen for their fall color and texture are the common oakleaf hydrangea, the singularly unusual Chinese parasol tree and a shrub named Disanthus cercidifolius. The latter grows to about six feet high and wide, with leaves resembling the redbud’s and turning a wine-red fall color. (Note to self: Get one.)

Thompson, from Iowa, was struck by the tree canopy of the Mid-Atlantic. Crowley, from Florida, discovered the region’s dynamic seasonality. The Nason Garden “looks amazing in the fall and winter,” Crowley said. “It’s cool to have areas of campus that look better when it’s dreary out.”

The trees of the Scott Arboretum represent 150 years of commemorative plantings and replantings and include magnificent specimens of American elms, swamp white oaks, black gum and catalpa. One of the most dramatic tree plantings is an avenue of dawn redwood in a narrow canyon of space between two tall buildings. In the beds beneath, ground covers have been planted to produce a green and white effect through the growing season, said Claire Sawyers, arboretum director. These include snowdrops, white chionodoxa, ferns, rohdeas, white flowering Japanese roof irises, white blooming hellebores and Solomon’s seal.

Two gardens move front and center for this weekend’s commencement, performing as the sort of ritual spaces that are so important to forging bonds and memories on any campus.

The first is the Dean Bond Rose Garden, once a typical postwar formal garden of hybrid teas, floribundas and not much else, the sort of rose gardens that gave roses a bad name for their fussiness and chemical dependence. Its replacement offers a rose garden for the 21st century: full of carefully selected, disease-resistant varieties incorporated into plantings with heirloom varieties and species and all set in a broader garden context of perennials. The climbers and ramblers share their bowers with clematis.


Swarthmore students use the outdoor chalkboard in the Harry Wood Garden for learning and for play. (Rebecca Robert/Swarthmore College)

Alliums amid the roses in the renovated Dean Bond Rose Garden. (Rebecca Robert/Swarthmore College)

The Swarthmore roses get a spraying of horticultural oil in late winter and, in season, a regular foliar feed of fish fertilizer, but no chemical sprays, gardener Adam Glas said. In replanting the garden, “we really paid attention to improving and amending the soil, because the [original] roses had been here since 1957,” said Jeffrey Jabco, director of grounds.

This Sunday, by tradition, approximately 350 graduating seniors will go to the garden, select a rose and have it pinned to their gown. They will then proceed to the commencement ceremony itself, which occurs in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater. The signal feature of the college, the amphitheater recalls Classical Greek amphitheaters but is given a sylvan setting. Old tulip trees rise like columns from the eight tiers, which are edged in stone but grassed. The tradition of commencement in this space is so strong that it is held rain or shine.


Without the crowds, the amphitheater displays a sublime balance of architecture and woodland. It was designed in the early 1940s by landscape architect Thomas W. Sears. (Scott Arboretum)

Harvard University’s research center at Washington’s Dumbarton Oaks provides the sweetest blend of landscape and academia, even if the Georgetown garden started life as a private paradise. John Beardsley, the director of garden and landscape studies, said that beyond its instructional value, a rich landscape shapes student life. In Harvard Yard in the 19th century, he said, students could go to “the rebellion elm” to air their grievances. “Clearly a campus is not necessary to learning — you can learn online — but you learn something else in a shared landscape space, which is about creating a sense of belonging,” he said.

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