Pay no attention to those gray skies and crumpled brown leaves.
On the pages of “The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques From Chanticleer” (Timber Press), candy-colored tulips soar above soft yellow clouds of euphorbia, lime-green succulents bask in the summer sun, and grasses glow red and gold in the fading light of a perfect fall day.
Chanticleer, an innovative 22-year-old public garden in Wayne, Pa., has a reputation that outstrips its age and acreage. (It originally was the early-20th-century country estate of Philadelphian Adolf Rosengarten Sr. and his wife, Christine.) It’s one of 25 gardens featured in Tim Richardson’s “Great Gardens of America,” and earlier this year, the North American Garden Tourism Conference named it one of the “Top 10 North American Gardens Worth Traveling For.”
The book provides a great escape for a winter’s day: In addition to the beautiful color photos and history of the gardens, it also offers insights from the gardeners who design – and redesign – the series of interlocking gardens that make up the 35-acre whole.
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We talked to co-author Bill Thomas, Chanticleer’s executive director and head gardener, about the garden behind the book. Following is an edited transcript.
Q: What is Chanticleer? How would you define it?
A: Chanticleer is a former private estate that’s open to the public. It’s a contemporary garden in an historic setting where we evolve every year and we’re working hard to make one of the prettiest and most exciting gardens in the world.
Q: Maybe I see too many British gardening books, but Chanticleer strikes me as unusual in that it doesn’t try to look aristocratic.
A: I would say, then, we’re meeting our goal. One of the purposes of the garden is to be educational, and we do find that many of our guests relate to it well. I think of it as often just being the size and the scale where people can go, “Oh! I could do this at home.” Or, “I could do a corner of this at home.” But also the feeling is, we’re not trying to impress people with, “Oh, we have money” or “It’s a fancy place.” We’re doing really the sort of gardening that … we would all do at home if we just had more staff.
Q: You have seven gardeners?
A: We have seven gardeners, and each one of them is in charge of an area – designing, planting and maintaining his or her area.
Q: Tell me about two garden areas that are really different.
A: The Chanticleer terraces are on the south side of the mansion that was built in 1912, 1913. There are terraces, limestone balustrades – of all the areas of Chanticleer, that looks like a wealthy person’s home or garden. We use a lot of tropicals in the summer months; we have lots of very lush, flowing containers.
The pond area is also a sunny spot; I think of it as a cross between a meadow and a perennial border. It’s more controlled than a meadow would, be but it’s way more exuberant and wild than a usual perennial garden would be.
Both areas are very colorful, both are fun to walk through, but one seems wild, one seems very controlled.
Q: I’m really intrigued by the Ruin Garden, with the stone structure built to look like the remains of an old house. I can’t decide if it’s emblematic of Chanticleer or a radical departure. You took down one of the original houses to build it?
A: Yes, in fact our founder’s home. It was Adolph Rosengarten Jr.’s home. I’m the second director. Chris Wood was the first. Chris established, I guess you could say, almost a tradition of Chanticleer being bold. That also derived from the board; the board established a policy early on that they would not get involved in the day-to-day design decisions; they would leave that up to the staff. Chris took that and ran with it. Chris loves some controversy, and Chris feels a garden should be controversial because, by being controversial, you get people to think.
Q: So he got rid of Adolph’s house?
A: Chris saw this house, which was a pretty house, in the middle of a garden that already had two large houses. Adolph’s house was not easily accessible by car. It wasn’t a great house to live in, because it was right in the middle of the garden. So (Chris) made the very bold move of making the (site of the) house part of the garden, following in a European tradition of having ruins in the garden – romantic structures, or follies. So I think it does fit. The Ruin was built to make it look like the house had fallen into disrepair, so it harks back to the history of the property but at the same time gave us something brand new, and it gave us a garden element.
Q: Is that your feeling, too – that gardens should be controversial?
A: I’m less likely to incite controversy, although at the same time, I want people to get thinking. We’ve been open to the public 22 years now, and we’ve done 44 designs (in the Teacup Garden alone). In your own garden, you’re probably not going to be changing that much, but it shows you there isn’t just one way to develop your own private garden. You can do it how you want, and there doesn’t have to be someone looking over your shoulder. You just really have to please yourself.