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w. atlee burpee seed fordhook farm doylestown pa

Fordhook Farm, a Dream Come True for W. Atlee Burpee

by Mary Jasch

A central drive takes you through the estate of Burpee Seed founder W. Atlee Burpee in farm-country outskirts of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Named Fordhook Farm, its buildings sit atop a rolling landscape surrounded by fields, gardens and woods.

Fordhook Farm has been a world-renowned plant development facility since 1888 when Burpee bought it. Even today, since Burpee’s merger with George J. Ball, Inc. (developer of All-American Winner “Tango” and Super Elfin Impatiens), Fordhook remains in the forefront of plant trialing and research. Plus, the gardens are gorgeous.

To the left of the drive is a meadow with historic Seed House and large-scale sculpture resembling tree roots. A large blue metal ball made of alphabet letters stands in front of the Happiness Garden, a sunny enclosed garden with grass paths running through curvaceous beds of blossoming plants and more sculpture. Fragrance hangs in the air. Take a path and see ‘Burning Love’ Lychnis.

Water drips from a three-foot metal leaf under a Silky Willow and soft Lady’s Mantle. A brilliant orange Oriental Poppy rises over silver-leafed grass and bladdernut’s dangling blossoms become dangling capsules. There seems to be every perennial and grass you can think of here.

Follow swaths of lavender Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’ and dark-leafed Penstemon digitalis ‘Mystica’ near tree-sized elderberry, so delicate it looks like aralia. Iron dinosaur skeletons and ancient fish among blustery weigelia and yellow thistle. Color abounds. Sambucus nigra ‘Guincho Purple,’ dark in summer and red in autumn, and nearby perennials bounce against earth to reach sky. Lychnis ‘Diamonds and Rubies’ next to verbascum with giant yellow flowers and tradescantia of many hues.
Visitors will want these plants in their gardens.

Under pines and out in the sun, rows of nursery stock in pots and earth waiting for approval. Fields of colorful rows and test plots lie beyond.

Down the gravel lane to Burpee Hall’s left, turn right on a stone walk into a demo Shade Garden with plants dug from Heronswood, a west coast nursery of distinction. ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ pineapple lily with variegated Solomon seal, grasses, true geranium gone wild and tradescantia line the path to the Sun Border on the other side.

There, six-foot grasses, chartreuse spirea and mature shrubs arch and float over blue geranium and bee-covered nepeta. The beds do multi-duty: as research plots to see how potential new products perform, as growing out beds for seed, and just being beautiful.
“It’s a research garden in a display garden setting,” says Bill Rein, Burpee horticulturist.

It was always so.

It was at Fordhook that W. Atlee developed his business while developing impressive and sturdy plant selections from European seed that he gathered on annual trips abroad.

Did you know that:
• Burpee created the first hybrid vegetable in the U.S.!
• Fordhook Lima was the first bush lima bean.
• Golden Bantam eas the very first yellow sweet corn.
• Burpee was the world’s first company to deliver seeds by air.
• Luther Burbank and W. Atlee were cousins.
• Burpee was once Beaupe`.

Before all that, this son of a doctor started a poultry-breeding catalog business as a teen and soon expanded into border collies and farm animals. Years later, he added feed and seed. He hired immigrant watercolorists to illustrate “Burpee’s Farm Annual” catalogs. After Burpee died in 1915, when his company was sending out a million catalogs a year, his son David, 22, took over W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Seed Growers. Now, George J. Ball, Jr. is president of Burpee.

Next door at “The Inn,” where W. Atlee lived, there’s always room for gardens. The stone terraced Veranda Garden spreads across its back. More perennials, shrubs and grasses like sun-tolerant hellebore and deep red hydrangea and Sedum ‘Black Jack’ swell out from a 40 x 20-foot space.

On to the kitchen garden fronted by streamside plantings of sunny perennials and grasses. Enter into a feeling of peace and wellness. Perfectly spaced annuals and vegetables look perky in raised beds. Roses and grapes clamber on the fence. Mounds of dill and parsley, little trellises for cukes, every veggie, every variety, tall phlox, arrow-shaped lettuce, potatoes with pink flowers and blue. Striking ‘Origami’ columbine of red, white and yellow, tuteurs in triangular veggie beds. Inspiration!

Follow the stream down to the wetland garden, past more demo gardens and mounds of petasites (looks yummy for bears). Into the wetland with spikes of delicate-hued veronica and billowing Joe-Pye, blocks of New England aster ‘Lachsglut’ looking like hot pink straw flower, asclepias unbound, everything tall.

Head back past hydrangea beds, ferns galore and midget chartreuse honeysuckle under sweet gum and ash. Past clusters of bamboo and carex and beyond the pond to un-edged beds of Heronswood goodies – perhaps never before seen on the east coast – like the prettiest variety of leatherleaf viburnum, blue and white-striped Geranium Sylvaticum ‘Bakers Pink,’ purple orchids with leaves like trout lily and Himalayan Lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum var. giganteum, with fragrant Easter lily-like blooms.

Heronswood plants are “unusually great – the newest or best or few of something, basically collected from nurseries in other countries” Rein says.

Beds upon beds hold miniature astilbe, the tiniest golden Turk’s cap lily and brown grass that looks dead but comes alive in clumps. Other beds grow “will they survive?” plants, splats of Mazus reptans and dark purple Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’ mallow with blood red-throated pink flowers.

The colors and beds and plants continue. The map shows more gardens that weren’t visited. Plant lovers, if you’ve never been to see the home of Burpee imagination, go.

* All photos courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., Seed Growers

Don't Miss these events at Fordhook Farm:
Burpee's Harvest Festival: Friday and Saturday, August 21-22
Autumn Garden Tour: Friday and Saturday, September 25-26

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published July 10, 2009

Photos to enlarge

Happiness Garden with different Miscanthus varieties. In the back to right of pink Phlox is Panicum 'Cloud Nine'

The house where Atlee lived and the Veranda Garden

View across Veranda Garden to barn with Salvia kniphifia

Cook's Garden

Kitchen Garden

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Endless Summer' by the pond

Hydrangea serrata 'Beni' Wildwood

Springhouse Garden, like a Thomas Kincaid painting, a magnolia drapes over Chelone 'Hot Lips,' Matteuccia struthiopteris fern, and 'Fireball' and 'Plum Crazy' hibiscus

Yellow Ligularia dentata 'Othello,' white Eupatorium perfoliatum and pinkish Eupatorium dubium at the ruin of the old springhouse

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