Philadelphia – the birthplace of the American garden

October 4, 2017

I just got back from the most amazing tour of gardens!  I went with Marian St. Clair’s Hortotopia tours with 27 other women to tour several public and private Philadelphia Gardens for one week.  What a great time!

Philadelphia is truly the birthplace of American gardening.  John Bartram (1699-1777) was regarded as “the greatest natural botanist in the world” during his time.  He was a Quaker who’s family farm was located just outside of Philadelphia.  Though he only completed a basic education, his love of plants and botany compelled him to travel as far north as Canada and as far south as Florida, collecting plant specimens from his travels.  He is also regarded as the father of American Botany.

Philadelphia’s soil is mostly loamy, and horticulturally excellent.  The area is also warmer and wetter than the rest of Pennsylvania.  It is gardening zone 7, meaning that winters are not overly harsh.  So this is pretty close to perfect for gardens.  As a result, John Bartram’s garden is only one of many in the area.  I don’t know if it was Bartram’s reputation, the soil and climate, or serendipity, but the Philadelphia area boasts more than 30 public gardens and arboretums.

Public gardens

One of the most famous gardens in America is Chanticleer.  Started in the early 1900s by the originators of what is today Merck Pharmaceuticals, Chanticleer is two homes surrounded by 65 acres of garden heaven.    There are the gardens surrounding the house, a shade garden, sandy garden, the ruins, cutting, vegetable, children’s, and more.  Chanticleer has a staff of 18 full time gardeners, plus interns and volunteers.  The grounds are spectacular.  Here are my three favorite photos.

The main house in the background of a perennial garden


Cut flower garden
Entry to Chanticleer

Hotulus Farms is a garden of 100 acres that is a stark contrast to Chanticleer.  Started by garden designer Renny Reynolds, Hortulus Farms surrounds a colonial era house dating from 1790 with a lovely pond and stream running through the property.  There is a meadow walk, topiary garden, french garden, cut flower garden, Mediterranean garden, and vegetable garden.  The garden is maintained loosely by 3 full time gardeners.  What a lovely place.  Hortulus Farms was a great example of the basic paradigm of beauty – conflict followed by resolution.  The wild natural areas open into lovely controlled spaces.  The photos below will give you an example.

The swimming pool. Really!
Our view during lunch, from the porch of the house down to the pond.
The topiary garden.
The duponts

The Brandywine Valley (just outside Philadelphia and into Delaware) hosts three DuPont Mansions.  Three.  First was Winterthur (pronounced Winter-tour).  Begun by Henry, Pierre and Alfred DuPont respectively, Winterthur, Longwood, and Nemours are three public gardens not to be missed.


Winterthur is the largest home and the grounds are 1,000 acres.  The house is 197 rooms, nine stories and there are five tours available through the house.  Named after a family home in Switzerland, Winterthur contains a conifer garden, fantasy garden, reflection pond, azalea garden, quarry garden and various walking paths through forested areas with artwork and resting spots along the way.  Stunning views make this garden special.  The surrounding land is virgin forest, growing unmolested for nearly 200 years.  The reflection pond of today actually began as the first heated swimming pool in America.

Winterthur refection pond.


The meadow, with goldenrod in full bloom.










longwood gardens

Next was Longwood Gardens, the granddaddy of all American public gardens.  Started by Pierre DuPont a generation after Winterthur, Longwood was named for a nearby farm and consists of over 1,000 acres of formal gardens.

The perennial border is color-schemed from purple to blue to red to orange to yellow sections.  There is a large pond in a forested area, some trees are more than 150 years old.  An Italian garden boasts multiple, coordinated fountains with topiary designs.  The Conservatory encloses four acres of beauty – a succulent garden, orchid, tropical, rose, and just pleasure gardens can be strolled through within the Conservatory.  There are outdoor water ponds with giant lilies, trial gardens, a dahlia garden, and a topiary garden.  There is also a “Living Wall’ – a wall covered with every kind of fern imaginable.

Longwood is so huge that I could not see it all in one day.  The main fountain has been newly renovated and is surrounded by more fountains and beautiful outbuildings and topiaries.  I’ll chose a couple of my photos to tempt you.  But allow yourself a full day to see this garden.

Just one small fountain at Longwood.


One small taste of the Conservatory.















Last was Nemours.  Built by Alfred DuPont, Pierre’s cousin, Nemours was named after a family estate called Nemours in France, where the DuPonts originated from.  The intent was to replicate Le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s “cottage” at Versailles.  This is a smaller house, only 95 rooms, on three floors.  The gardens are more formal, covering 200 acres.  The influence is very French.

The French Parterre adjoining the house.
Small fountain at the rear of the house.











All DuPont homes and gardens have been left to the public and are maintained by endowments from their original owners.  It kind of makes you happy for the gilded age.

other gardens

Philadelphia has many other public gardens.  Unfortunately, we were not able to see John Bartram’s garden due renovation during our visit.  These are five of the over 30 public gardens in the Philadelphia/Brandywine Valley area.  But if you don’t see any other gardens, these five should be on your bucket list.  They were spectacular.  All the owners, builders, designers had an acute interest in gardening and horticulture.  And all have professional staff.

In addition to these gardens, we saw three private gardens.  More about those in my next post!

Even with loads of money and garden help, there are still things to take away from these gardens for the average home gardener.  Color schemes, interplay of heights and textures, and the discovery of plants we never knew all contribute to our own happy, beautiful, homey gardens.  Go visit!

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I am a retired CPA who is now a Master Gardener. I spend my time gardening, doing tile mosaic, and visiting grandchildren.

    1. Wow! What a trip for observing ” the beautiful ” world in which we live…. gardens so carefully tended with love. Envy!

    1. Thanks for sharing your photos & thoughts on visiting these wonderful American garden gems around Philadelphia, PA. I am inspired to go see them too!

    1. Goodness, it was such fun I’m almost ready to go again. Love these gardens! And it makes me especially happy to see them with gardeners who enjoy them as much as I do.

      1. Thanks Marian. It was a trip of a lifetime for me! I want to go back!

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