A decade ago, I started work on a book about Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and with photographer Rob Cardillo produced what I hoped would be an ode to one of America’s horticultural gems.
What makes Chanticleer so special is the underlying ethos established, among others, by its first director, Chris Woods, who held that the primary purpose of a garden is to give us pleasure. This is not as simple as it might seem, because pleasure must be crafted and staged. This is achieved not just with flowers, leaf colors, patterns and textures. On a larger 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 horticulture is so instructive and compelling.
The garden, less than 30 years old, was created around the old estate of a 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.
Thomas heads a creative team. Among the garden features added over the past decade, the most interesting is an elevated walkway that snakes its way down a hill behind the main house. 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 but are still captivating.
Even more interesting is the garden of perennials and grasses rising from the slope. When I first saw the walkway under construction, I thought it was going to have low ground covers incidental to the experience of moving to lower ground. Instead it is a captivating vertical jungle of perennials. One shares the walk with dragonflies and hummingbirds. Some things, though, haven’t changed, including a couple of guiding principles in Chanticleer’s plant artistry. The first is 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 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 idea, 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.
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.
I can’t end without mentioning another new feature so perverse it caused me to laugh. 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, 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 things 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 expects to visit Chanticleer to leave 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.