Seeds of Solace

David Culp has given more than 30 years to his beloved garden. In quarantine, it is giving back.
David Culp’s Brandywine Cottage in Chester County, Pa. (Photos by Rob Cardillo Photography)

It took David Culp two years to write his book “A Year at Brandywine Cottage,” but more than 30 years of accumulated knowledge and devotion to produce it.

The book, co-written with Denise Cowie and photographed by Rob Cardillo, presents, by season, the multilayered and sophisticated garden Culp has created on two sloping acres in Chester County, Pa., around a simple white stuccoed farmhouse where he and his partner live, built when George Washington was alive.

Culp is a well-known figure in American horticulture and was one of the first plantsmen to bring a European-style connoisseurship to the lowly snowdrop, among other deceptively beguiling plants.

In March his publisher, Timber Press, arranged a series of book launch events that included a lecture for 300 and a reception for 50 within the elegant conservatories of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., where he has taught for 22 years.

At Brandywine Cottage, spring is a highlight of the garden’s year, a time when as many as two busloads of visitors a week arrive to take in extravagant displays of tulips and savor walks through the burgeoning woodland, the decorative vegetable garden, the herbaceous borders and more than a dozen other major features. This year, the parties, book signings and garden tours promised to be a marker, perhaps the marker, of a life’s work. Then the coronavirus arrived and the shutdown followed. Some friends drove by to look at the roadside tulips. Culp managed a wave.

“It was the absolutely worst time to launch a book,” he says.

But Culp is not crestfallen. The enforced isolation has brought home what he knew all along. When you devote years to creating a garden at this level, it becomes the center of your universe. Everything else is peripheral. Being stuck in a horticultural paradise of your own making is like locking Picasso in a studio and telling him he has to paint.

Culp loves the camaraderie of the garden world: the symposiums, the dinner parties with plant-nerd friends, the plant sales in public gardens. In late winter, he organizes a weekend festival celebrating the snowdrops that draw snowdrop fanciers from near and far, including England and continental Europe. But it would all mean nothing without his garden. “I made the garden,” he says. “The garden made me.”

David Culp has spent 30 years transforming his two-acre property, Brandywine Cottage, into a garden of delight.

He came to the site when it was a bit of a barren wreck in 1990. His partner, Michael Alderfer, joined him 28 years ago and together they have worked to bring shape and character to the place, gravitating to their preferred tasks and horticultural interests.

Apart from the canceled events and garden tours, Culp’s daily routine has been fairly normal during the pandemic. In the morning, he steps out into the garden with the couple’s two English bulldogs, Dolly and Ted, takes a walk with his coffee and assesses the garden areas. A garden’s beauty can be strangely remote to passionate gardeners, who are more likely to develop an eye for how plants are growing and changing from day to day, what’s coming into bloom and what’s fading. Spotting weeds and resolving to get to them is a big impulse, though Culp is relaxed about invaders, sees beauty in many weedy plants, and feels that they can aid his vision of a stylized but authentic cottage garden: loose, effusive and romantic.

This includes preparing a daily list of garden tasks, though Culp admits that when dusk comes and he calls it a day, not everything is done. He may get sidetracked or the heavens may open. The garden doesn’t have a deer fence, and he spends a lot of time spraying a variety of repellents on plants such as tulips, hostas and lilies as they become susceptible to browsing.

The house and its principal outbuilding, the barn, sit on the southern edge of a property the shape of a lamb chop. The northern half is dominated by a hilly woodland, giving Culp the two distinctive playgrounds for hardy plants, sun and shade.

After springtime flowering, a native silverbell paves the garden path with petals.
Culp has raised the profile of the snowdrop.
LEFT: After springtime flowering, a native silverbell paves the garden path with petals. RIGHT: Culp has raised the profile of the snowdrop.

The main feature is a large open square of land framed by densely planted herbaceous borders and the rose garden. At the heart of this is a decorative vegetable garden, defined by a white picket fence and surrounded by more herbaceous borders. The Veg, as they call it, can be seen from all three floors of the house, and it might seem odd to have such a utilitarian garden so front and center, but for Culp and Alderfer, it’s a reminder of the farming legacy of their Pennsylvania Dutch forebears (or, more precisely, German Anabaptists).

Culp, now in his mid-60s, grew up in Reading, Pa., moved to Tennessee as a boy and, after working in the South in his 20s, returned to southeastern Pennsylvania and his roots in 1988, working as a perennials buyer for a retail nursery. He was drawn to the property because it fit his budget and he liked the fact the house, timeworn as it was, had not been messed about with. He saw the potential of the land, even if the first task was to rescue it from the invasive multiflora rose, the poison ivy and the honeysuckle.

He has seen large-lot subdivisions develop around him — the area is in the orbit of Philadelphia — and he remains bemused that people would reside with so much land and have little evident interest in it.

At Brandywine Cottage, he has placed intimate gardens around the buildings, including the entry garden, a descent through spruce trees to a Zen-like space; and the ruin garden, featuring succulents and rock garden plants in containers around the old vineclad remnants of a stone stable. The barn becomes a holding space for tender plants in the offseason, a rustic orangerie to retreat to in the winter, though there’s still plenty of action outside then.

One of his challenges is to have a bouquet of flowers to bring indoors on New Year’s Day. If winter is more a state of mind than a season, so are the other times of year. He chops up the year into six seasons. Early spring begins with February and the peaking of the snowdrops, the perennial Lenten rose, or hellebore, and the witch hazels, though other plants add ornament and interest. That is also the month Alderfer, who is boss of the veggie garden, starts seeds indoors.

The season progresses to its second stage from April to June, when choice varieties of trees and shrubs fill the air with flowers, including magnolias, halesias and apples, and profligate displays of daffodils and then tulips greet the downward gaze. These are followed by the appearance of another favored flower, the bearded iris, and as the irises retreat the antique roses take over, in the beds and over walls, tumbling, perfumed and richly colored.

Their fading in June marks the shift to summer, when leafy warm-season plants such as bananas, elephant ears and phormiums are set in the borders and give it a tropical air. It is a time, too, of lilies and garden phlox. The vegetable garden becomes replete, but the hot months are really just a prelude to the autumn, the other major period in the garden’s year. In September, the salvias are in full bloom, the colchicums appear, the hardy begonia is in flower and the sedums blossom, to the delight of Culp’s honeybees. (He also keeps chickens.)

For most people, even avid gardeners, two acres would be more than enough. What makes Culp’s garden extraordinary is how he has extracted even more growing power from his real estate. He has achieved this by planting densely in concurrent and consecutive layers, and by rejecting the idea that the growing season lasts from March to October.

Michael Alderfer tends the decorative vegetable garden at the heart of Brandywine Cottage. The soil is enriched with composted leaves and cow manure.

How do you make a winter garden in the Mid-Atlantic? You turn to hardy flowering plants such as snowdrops, eranthis, adonis, wintersweet, witch hazels and hellebores. You plant shrubs with decorative bark and berries, you grow evergreens and you learn to find beauty in faded hydrangea blooms or grasses. In an earlier book, “The Layered Garden,” Culp wrote: “My choice was no choice at all, really: either I could suffer all winter from cabin fever, or I could create a garden that would get me out of the house twelve months of the year, giving me worthwhile work to do and allowing me to continually exercise my passion for plants.”

Another essential aspect of life at Brandywine Cottage is the arrangements, of cut flowers and other gifts from the garden. A cutting garden of tulips, dahlias and annuals is an important if concealed feature. In truth, the entire garden provides a continuous supply of material for the vase. Early in the year, that includes branches forced into flower.

Culp has been drawn to certain signature plants, notably daffodils, tulips, irises, peonies and old roses. It is telling, perhaps, that the two he has invested most of himself in, the snowdrop and the hellebore, are winter bloomers.

The botanical name for snowdrop is Galanthus, and Culp is among an international set of “Galanthophiles” who think nothing of paying $100 for a single rare bulb. You don’t even count in this club, he notes, until you have amassed at least 50 varieties, each with the sort of subtle differences only a connoisseur could appreciate. One has yellow markings instead of green, which he picked out from among thousands of naturalized snowdrops, and has been named after him.

The 18th-century farmhouse’s original covered well becomes a stage for container plants.
Tulips large and small are an important part of the mid-spring landscape. This is a dwarf variety named Little Beauty.
LEFT: The 18th-century farmhouse’s original covered well becomes a stage for container plants. RIGHT: Tulips large and small are an important part of the mid-spring landscape. This is a dwarf variety named Little Beauty.

As for the hellebores, he has been reveling in them for decades, long before they became mainstream as garden perennials. He has developed several for commercial introduction, sold as Brandywine Hellebores. He breeds for uniformity of petal shapes, flower stance (nodding, but not too much), rich colors and even markings. He enjoys hellebores developed by others as well, and likes to grow some of the showy hybrids in his flower borders and more natural-looking varieties in the woodland garden.

One of the pitfalls of collecting varieties of a single plant is that your paradise resembles a botanic garden, or the design is weakened by the sameness of like plants. Culp has always been mindful of this and has worked to integrate his plant passions into larger planting designs.

There is one other way in which Brandywine Cottage has extracted maximum horticultural potential from the land. Culp and Alderfer have positioned approximately 400 containers of plants around the property. They house a medley of tropicals, houseplants and annuals; even hardy perennials and herbs are used as needed, filling seasonal voids in the display beds, for example.

Nowhere are they more important than in the ruin garden, where Culp has added displays in stone and fabricated troughs. He uses every corner of the property — there’s a fire pit garden for winter and for summer a shady gravel patio next to the house — but the ruin garden has a cosseting quality that Culp has come to rely on.

Over the years, he has had a couple of serious illnesses and surgeries that have required weeks of recuperation and a lot of contemplation about one’s mortality. In the shelter of the ruin garden and in weeding the elevated containers, he could start the slow business of getting back on his feet. “You just have to stop and let the garden give back,” he says.

The past few months have required a different type of resilience, but the garden has again demonstrated its capacity to be there when it is most needed.

“It’s been a source of great, great solace,” Culp says. The garden “takes you out of your time” and shows the gardener the future. “It’s an act of faith,” he says. “That’s important right now.”

With the addition of more artificial and natural light, the steps to the cottage basement have been converted into a winter “vivarium” for tender plants.

Adrian Higgins is the gardening columnist for The Washington Post.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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