The Powder Maker’s Garden

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As I walked down a side path at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, on a bright, sunny day in June, two quite distinct sights converged just in front of me. One was a middle-aged foursome of fellow visitors, all clad in the near-mandatory style of the vacationing 1980s American: immaculate pastel sports clothes and bulbous white sneakers. The other sight was a spectacular tree, one whose branches, instead of ascending toward the heavens, droop mournfully down to the ground—what garden people call a weeping form. Suddenly a member of the foursome broke away from her companions, ducked between the sagging branches, and disappeared completely from view, rather like a chipmunk bolting into the shrubbery.

I knew quite well what the vanishing lady was doing. I had been doing much the same thing for hour upon hour at Longwood Gardens. She was looking for the tree’s identifying label, doubtless confident that one would be found attached to the tree trunk, for though Longwood calls itself a pleasure garden, it supplies labels for its eleven thousand varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers with more meticulous care than many a world-famous botanical garden. This is a great blessing to name freaks, meaning people like myself who are not quite happy with even the loveliest tree, shrub, or flower until we have been formally introduced.

Three hundred guests attended the first party at Longwood; they dined on salmon and claret punch.
 
 
 
 

After twenty seconds or so the vanishing lady emerged from her leafy enclosure with her face beaming merrily.

“What is it?” I called out to her, name freak to name freak.

“Weeping European beech,” she shouted back. “Isn’t it just worth the whole trip?”

I signaled my assent—the tree was a beauty—and we went our separate ways. The pastel foursome was heading for Longwood’s Hillside Garden, a small, lovely affair of steep, narrow paths and dense, low plantings, which blooms in spring with alpine flowers. I myself was heading back to Longwood’s glorious assemblage of greenhouses—twenty indoor gardens under 3.5 acres of glass—hoping to figure out on a second examination why it is that an emerald green lawn growing indoors should prove so oddly pleasing a sight. To figure out why seemed my duty as a chronicler of Longwood Gardens, for while there are gardens more exquisitely beautiful and gardens (though not many) more grand, Longwood’s 350 landscaped acres have the power to make people feel happy, all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes,—very happy indeed.

Longwood is easier to enjoy than to understand. “The place would drive a landscape architect crazy,” says Colvin Randall, Longwood’s resident historian and spokesman. “There’s not one grand plan for Longwood, and there never was.” It seems on first (or second) go-round to be a vast miscellany of pleasures and delights: a formal sixhundred-foot brick walk, straight as a die, bordered with lavish flower beds in perfect, pristine bloom; a cool, stone-walled water garden with lovely blue-tiled pools poised at the edge of a woods; a lordly five-acre fountain garden complete with canals, statuary, and fountains that the eminent garden writer Edward Hyams deems “the most spectacular that have been made since the Renaissance.” There are separate little gardens, some of them neatly walled in by clipped arborvitae, making sweet, secluded little outdoor rooms. These include a peony garden, a wisteria garden, a square fountain garden, a rose arbor, a rose garden, and a topiary garden with deep green yew clipped into the shape of cones, cubes, and spirals as well as the shape of a chair and table, a bird, a rabbit. There is even an open-air theater with raised lawns for its two-tiered stage—a sloping lawn for the orchestra, clipped arborvitae for stage wings, massive Canada hemlocks and Kentucky coffee trees for a backdrop, and a row of jetting water for the theater curtain.

There are informal picturesque areas: a hilltop knoll behind the great fountain garden with hundreds of magnificent specimen trees—lofty white pine, floriferous Spanish chestnut, atlas cedar of astonishing breadth. There is a glorious wild meadow crossed by footpaths thoughtfully mowed by the garden staff; a bosky forest walk beneath soaring tulip poplars; a roaring man-made waterfall; a beautiful little lake bordered on one side by a dark forest and on the other by sun-drenched lawn. There are two 900-foot-long avenues of majestic nineteenth-century trees. These are the awesome remains of what had once been one of early America’s finest arboretums, known then and now as Peirce’s Park, after Joshua and Samuel Peirce, botanizing Quaker twins who started their tree collecting in 1798; the Peirce property itself was a grant to the family from none other than William Penn.