The flowery lawn next to Chanticleer House is a whimsical take on the meadow. The unmown grass is enlivened with annuals in summer and bulbs in the spring. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

A decade ago, I started work on a book about Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pa., and with photographer Rob Cardillo produced what I hoped would be not just another fleeting coffee table book but an ode to one of America’s horticultural gems.

What makes Chanticleer so special is the underlying ethos established by, among others, its first director, Chris Woods, who held that the primary purpose of a garden is to give us pleasure. This is not as simple or obvious an idea as it might seem, because pleasure must be crafted and staged. This is achieved not just with flowers, but with leaf colors, patterns and textures within artful compositions. On a large canvas, the plant artist plays with spaces to create moods, from the exuberance of a summer cutting garden, full of sunflowers, dahlias and rudbeckias, to the cool calm of a ferny woodland. Sometimes the ingenuity lies in knowing what to leave out and when to stop.

In an age when gardens are burdened with so many roles, I thought a return visit to Chanticleer would remind me why this essential horticulture is so instructive and compelling, not to mention pleasurable.

The garden is less than 30 years old but has been created around the old estate of Main Line industrialist Adolph Rosengarten Jr. (1905-1990), who handed it to a foundation at his death. Great shade trees give the place its sense of age, and provide the sheltering framework for the richly varied gardens cultivated by a team of skilled gardeners, now under Executive Director Bill Thomas.

Chanticleer is open every Wednesday through Sunday until early November.

Thomas heads a creatively restless team, and not surprisingly, things have not stood still. Among the garden features added over the past decade, the most interesting is an elevated walkway that snakes down a hill behind the main house and its garden. It is just a few feet off the ground but high enough to give the sensation that you are floating through plantings that include groves of aspen trees, an unusual sight in the East. Away from the dry brilliance of the Rockies, the white-stemmed aspens drop their leaves early and forsake their fall display, but they are still captivating for their rarity.


It’s not what you plant, it’s how you use it. In the Tennis Court Garden, common tiger lilies are paired with a paulownia tree chopped back to produce gigantic leaves. (Ching-Fang Chen)

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the garden of perennials and grasses rising from the slope. When I first saw the walkway under construction, I thought this area was going to be a place of low ground covers incidental to the experience of moving to lower ground. Instead it is a captivating vertical jungle of perennials rising to greet the wayfarers. One shares the walk with dragonflies and hummingbirds. The fare includes red-flowering crocosmias and lobelias, the tall yellow daisies of silphiums and giant coneflowers, and a pink-flowered bee balm named Monarda bradburiana.

Some things, though, haven’t changed, including a couple of guiding principles in Chanticleer’s plant artistry. The first is that there are no barriers between plant types. Annuals, perennials, hardy and tender shrubs, tropicals, herbs, and more are all thrown into a grab bag. In the border above the swimming pool terrace, the fleshy, wavy leaves of sea kale, a leafy vegetable, function as a foil against a specimen of succulent agave and, farther along, the fine textures of an ornamental black-leaved elderberry. It’s odd but highly effective.

In another area named the Kitchen Courtyard, container plantings feature a baby upright birch paired with varieties of marigold. On paper, the combination seems outlandish, absurd even, but here it is, and it looks good.

The marigolds get to the second principle, which is that in haute horticulture, common plants are fine if you use them uncommonly. In water-filled ceramic pots, plucked nasturtium leaves and tiger lilies are presented as floating elements in a way that elevates them both. (Thomas and his team wrote a book in 2015, “The Art of Gardening,” that examines their creative techniques.)

In the Tennis Court Garden, with its generous four-square beds, the extraordinary use of ordinary plants continues. The towering, giant-leafed plant is a paulownia tree that has been chopped to the ground or coppiced to produce gigantic heart-shaped juvenile foliage. Once an exotic beauty, the paulownia is now considered a weed. Here, it grows close to an orange-flowering amaranth named Chinese Giant Orange and a brash, almost contorted tropical tree named Cecropia. The weed theme is continued with eruptions of variegated varieties of the towering marsh reed named Arundo donax. In sum, the Tennis Court Garden is beautifully, defiantly vulgar.


The elevated walkway is a relatively new feature at Chanticleer and takes visitors past groves of aspen trees and tall summer perennials. (Ching-Fang Chen)

I can’t end without mentioning another relatively new feature that is so perverse that it caused me to laugh out loud. This is the former panel of turf close to the main residence, Chanticleer House, which has been fashioned into a “flowery lawn.” At a time when meadows are trendy, either as earnest reproductions of native habitats or as extravagant massings of perennials and grasses, the Chanticleer mead refuses to take itself too seriously. From an appealing matrix of something called no-mow fine fescues, the gardener has positioned sparse plantings of quite ordinary flowers that are growing up in relative isolation. These include pentas, asclepias and more marigolds. In its naivete, we are liberated from the orthodoxies of contemporary meadow making.

No one visiting Chanticleer expects to be transformed into a superstar gardener. If you want, you can learn new plants and inventive ways of using old ones. Or you could just go for the fun and delight. You will still come away sensing that this is what gardening is all about.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Tip of the Week

Summer vegetables that are spent, diseased or struggling in the heat can be pulled and their beds readied for fall greens. Asian cabbages, pak choi, tatsoi and related plants grow well in the autumn plot and can be sown directly into cultivated beds or started in pots in protected areas for transplant in about a month.

— Adrian Higgins