Chanticleer: a gardener’s wonderland

I’ve had a very hard time putting this post together.

This is, I think, because the garden I’m profiling has had such an impact on me.  In my garden-conscious life, only a handful of places have made such an impression:  the Japanese strolling garden at Butchart Gardens, Christopher Lloyd’s creation at Great Dixter, and two New York City gardens — the marvelous Wave Hill and the striking plantings in Central Park’s Conservatory Garden.  All of these spaces are spectacular and all had the effect of actually weakening me in the knees upon first viewing.

There are moments we remember for different reasons:  a glorious vista that washed a feeling of  smallness over us, an interaction with wildlife that makes us feel a profound connection with nature or a feeling of being embraced by the natural world.  Like those pure feelings we had as a child.

In terms of garden spaces, for me it is a feeling of communion with beauty …

… and when this is combined with some understanding of plants and the work involved in maintaining a spectacular creation, the result is beyond appreciation: it is pure joy.

Some gardens are gardener’s gardens.  We are familiar with the plants, their culture and often their fussiness.  We are also familiar with their ubiquitous uses.  When we see a plant that is used creatively, whether it is juxtaposed with its perfect companion(s) or placed in a situation that is unusual, we have a moment of acknowledgement that is also wrapped in exquisite pleasure.

So here’s my experience of exquisite pleasure.

On a Friday in mid-August, my friend Patti and I left town early, armed with her excellent home-made lunch, Bridgehead lattes and good walking shoes.  We were anticipating an eight hour drive south, to a small town called Wayne, Pennsylvania.  This place is on what’s called the “Main Line”, that is, a direct railroad line from Philadelphia hence the perfect spot for wealthy east coasters to build and enjoy their grand summer homes.  Indeed, many of the homes in this area are spectacular, with grounds that rival arboretums.

But our destination was not just any home – it was Chanticleer.

Anticipating a visit to such a horticulturally important place can also be filled with dread.   We chatted on the drive down: what if it doesn’t live up to our expectations?  What if we find nothing but flaws?  Of course, we should not have worried.

This estate was the home of Adolph Rosengarten, Sr. and his wife Christine, whose family owned Rosengarten and Sons, a pharmaceutical company that produced quinine, a substance found in the bark of the cinchona tree and used to treat malaria, since 1822.   That firm would later become part of Merck & Company in the 1920s.

Perhaps it is poetic justice that the estate quinine built would be home to gardens that revel in all things tropical:

Chanticleer is 35 acres of gardens, rolling hills, woods and lawns.  The house that looks down onto the pond garden (pictured above) is approaching its 100 year anniversary as it was completed in 1913.   The spectacular terraces that surround the house were designed by landscape architect Thomas Sears, but the plantings there have been developed since Adolph Rosengarten Jr.’s death in 1990 and in the years since Chanticleer’s opening to the public in 1993.

Chanticleer’s gardens are maintained by twelve full-time gardeners.  Each section of the grounds is overseen by one person, allowing him/her to form a relationship with it and over time, achieve its horticultural potential.

Although this garden has only been in the public eye for only 20 years, images of certain parts of it have now become iconic.

While it was wonderful to see these magazine images in real life, I almost preferred the smaller, less photographed corners of the garden.

… unbelievably, there is more to see but I don’t want to overdo it ;c)

I would like to thank each and every one of the gardeners who work in this garden:  you can see their happy (who wouldn’t be?) mugs here.

The all-season staff are:  Przemyslaw Walczak, Lisa Roper, Ron Di Pietro, Dan Benarcik, Joe Henderson, Laurel Voran, William Stuart, Scott Steinfeldt, Douglas Randolph, Doug Croft, Peter Brindle, Jonathan Wright and Terry Struve.   And the seasonal staff are: Marilyn Leonard, Erin McKeon, Nate Pinelli, Tom Maczko, Yvonne England, Tom Lieb, Lucy Dinsmore, Patty Volpi.

And the staff in charge of greeting and informing visitors are:  BJ Johnson, Cynthia Pierce, Anne Sims, Taddy Dawson, Anne Rhoads.

And not least, the administrative and facilities management people:  Ed Hincken, Facilities Manager; Bill Thomas, Executive Director & Head Gardener; Fran DiMarco, Administrative Assistant; Bryan Christ, Assistant Facilities Manager.

Thank you all for such an enriching garden experience.

I’ll most definitely be back.

(By the way, if you’d like to look at an excellent piece on this garden through another gardener’s eyes, go here to James Golden’s blog.)

11 thoughts on “Chanticleer: a gardener’s wonderland”

  1. Oh Ailsa, what an exquisite garden. Your pictures are marvellous! Thank you so much for sharing them. – Hilary Kemsley

  2. You must have been exhausted, 35 acres of spectacular beauty. WOW. And you have all those wonderful pictures, so you can revisit the garden, anytime.
    Thanks for taking us on this trip.

    1. Yes, you’re right lol! We were exhausted. Happy to actually be in the car the next day off our feet.
      And you’re right; I can re-visit by looking at the pics but that’s not going to keep me from going again – perhaps next time in a different season.

  3. Love your post, Ailsa. I think we visited only about a week apart, so I’m astonished at how much some parts of the garden changed in that brief time. The Tennis Court garden, for example, was full of hot oranges when I visited. The one you saw looks like it has a quite different color scheme.

    1. Thanks James – I appreciate that. And you’re right about things changing in such a small period of time; the Tennis Court garden (at the bottom of the stone stairs, for those who don’t know) was well into russets and golds, with purples and burgundies. So it was taking on autumn hues rather than hot summer ones. For that, we visited the kaleidoscopic flower beds at Longwood the next day! I’ll chronicle that next…a totally different experience.

  4. Wow Ailsa! great pictures 🙂 My husband bought us a new house I can’t wait for spring to start with garden staging, flower planting and everything. I wish my garden would be as beautiful as Chanticleer one day. Can you advise on where to begin and what to avoid if I’m new to gardening? Thank you very much! Kay x

  5. Karen, those architectural plants with purple flowers are Angelica gigas, otherwise known as red-flowered Angelica. It performs as either a short-lived perennial or a biennial. Isn’t it spectacular?

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