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winterthur Museum Garden delaware last wild garden

Winterthur, the Last Wild Garden

by Mary Jasch

or Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson!

Preservation is sometimes a misnomer. Unless it is a diorama, one cannot preserve a garden which, by its very nature, constantly changes. So, maintaining the character of “The Last Wild Garden,” a turn-of-the-20th century landscape with its few quirks brings both challenge and reward.

The Garden is Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware and is William Robinson-wild as in his 1870s book, The Wild Garden. Truth is, Winterthur is not wild at all, but is carefully maintained as much as, if not more than, any formal garden.

“Robinson’s idea of a wild garden is very fragile,” says Chris Strand, Winterthur’s Garden and Estate Director. “It is one of the most impermanent types of gardens because it is all plant material based. This was the case with Robinson’s own gardens: they could just evaporate if they lost the continuity of care. His garden in England is like that.”

All that remains of Robinson’s gardens at Gravetye Manor, his home in England, are naturalized drifts of daffodils, his largest contribution to garden design, and a potager. Almost all other Robinson-influenced gardens have been lost. World War II made caring for them difficult with young able-bodied men off to war. Having someone there to help was gone and people couldn’t afford to hire then.

Winterthur has always been maintained. In its heyday, Henry Francis du Pont, owner/creator of Winterthur’s gardens, employed 89 gardeners. Now there are 16 with the aid of automation and equipment.

“When labor goes away, gardens suffer. There was a period when some things were in jeopardy here but the trustees decided to make more resources available,” says Strand of these gardens that represent transitions in time when transportation by horse moved to cars and horticulture moved from native plants to exotics.

“It’s all crystallized here. I love it. To me it’s sort of mysterious – mossy, old stone work, a scavenger hunt when you’re walking…”

Like Robinson, H.F. du Pont enjoyed a mix of exotics and natives in a seemingly natural setting. When du Pont graduated from Harvard University’s Bussey Institution of Agriculture and Horticulture, he returned to Winterthur and planted 50,000 bulbs, a Pinetum, conifers, the March Bank, trialed plants and hardscaped close to the house. “That was when the garden exploded. He liked Winterthur’s wildness and added and adjusted to the point of over-ripeness,” says Strand. (The original family home of 17 rooms evolved into a nine-story, 174 room house cascading down a hillside in the woods.)

In spring, color abounds but in summer, visitors have been known to ask, “Where’s the garden?” as they twirl around its center. The 60-acre core garden looks out onto 940 more acres of meadows, pasture and woodland that is Winterthur, the last great Wild Garden.

Du Pont died in 1969 and to this day staff continues to honor his design intent.

To maintain a wild garden, diligence, perseverance and keen eyesight are required.

“A wild garden takes more care,” says Strand. “If you walk away from it for five to ten years, it gets lost because there’s no real sense of order provided by hardscapes and plants in lines. In a lot of horticulture, you start with the hardscape – outlines of borders, walls, lawn panels – that define how space is used.”

But not at Winterthur where the style is wild. Take the March Bank, all ferns in summer and, in spring, minor bulbs like scilla, winter aconite, snowdrops, adonis, glory-of-the-snow, daffodils and anemone with ephemerals. Its shrub and small tree layer has dogwood, cornelian cherry, corylopsis… a blaze of color for over two months.

“In a wild garden, it’s a mosaic of plants you want: plants you are encouraging and plants that self sow,” says Strand whose staff works to maintain this balance. It is not a garden to ignore, nor one for the complacent or casual gardener. “We work hard to maintain the color combinations and cultivars that he had here and the mix of bulbs, perennials and wildflowers that he had. In the meadows, we maintain views and vistas.”

But change happens. Trees die and are replaced like the oak species on Oak Hill after the library was built and the hydrology changed. Within 20 years the original oaks died. They were replaced with more upland oaks species.

An archive of du Pont’s letters, photographs, lists and other materials that detail the plantings at Winterthur aids the staff in maintaining the property. It is a source of history, adventure and a trip into the mind of a man who wanted his land to be naturalistic, a new American landscape, a movement begun in the U.S. some decades earlier in the Hudson Valley with Andrew Jackson Downing and colleague Frederick Law Olmsted, then later in Robinson’s England.

The archives give Strand a blueprint. “I find it really satisfying. I’ve had experience being at gardens with no restrictions. Sometimes it’s good to have the borders of the page for a writer or borders of a garden. It makes you more creative. That’s the rewarding challenge of this garden.”

Every month Strand walks the grounds to make sure the self-sowers are sowing and plants are thriving where they’re supposed to be and not where they’re not. A wild plant that is wanted in one spot must be left to multiply; elsewhere, it may not be wanted and must be removed - a challenge for staff.

‘For instance, wildflowers in the lawn. Most modern gardeners don’t like clover, let alone dandelions. But at Winterthur, wild flowers are encouraged by letting the lawn grow tall so the wild flowers go to seed. Tall grass or greensward is nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a different way to maintain turf,” Strand says.

Du Pont planted his Wild Garden with many exotics such as the Dove Tree, Davidia involucrate, a 30-foot tree from China that takes 25 years for its bird-like blossoms and bracts to appear. It blooms at Winterthur in late April-early May.

“That’s one thing I like about an historic garden. There are moments… like this tree. The garden is invested with a little more meaning than just pretty flowers.”

Winterthur’s meadows and pastures want to be woodland, like all successional fields, so they are well maintained and cut for hay. “I think du Pont liked seeing that agricultural activity as part of the view of the garden. That agricultural part was part of the romance of this garden. He was a very wealthy guy who loved the rural landscape and what it meant to be American. It’s fun to look at the place and know what people were thinking. It’s a little like preserving something in amber."

DuPont worked on the 8-acre March Bank his whole life. A massive canopy of old oaks, one is 189 years old, and tulip poplars create high shade. A shorter layer of dogwood and redbud self-seed, which du Pont encouraged. But after his death, seedlings were not allowed to grow resulting in a very thin shrub layer.

“If there’s anything that’s a threat to this garden, it’s maintaining it. We had massive trees and now we’re missing trees in the 40-year old group. We rely on sheer numbers.” Staff is planting about 150 Cherokee Princess and Appalachian Spring dogwoods.

Habitats change when one species is removed and others move in. American chestnuts that once grew in the Azalea Woods are now the Museum’s cabinets, doors and frames. Now among the native pines, tulip poplar, dogwood, exotic azaleas and cultivated wild flowers, thousands of bluebells, trillium and Jacob’s ladder fill the canopy’s gaps.

A wild garden requires drifts and population effects. Self-sowers must reach a critical mass and that regeneration takes time. Strand believes in the concept of “more,” like in lots of drifts of daffodils.

These days, experts are documenting Winterthur’s daffodils as a living library. Most are not in the trade any longer like Weardale Perfection, the rarest daffodil in cultivation. “They represent the history of daffodil culture and a time when daffodil culture was a passion. It’s a living library that won’t survive. It’s the history of horticulture and plant exploration in a 3-D experience. I feel like I’m exposing people to a different esthetic and time when people didn’t have lawn mowers. A little like the Arts & Crafts movement when people were driven by passion,” says Strand.

Experiencing Winterthur is a MUST. See the March Bank’s bulbs and winter hazels in early April. See the Azalea Woods in early May. Best: check the website for what’s blooming.

Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library:

*Chris Strand lectures at NYBG's Winter Lecture Series, February 21:
** All images courtesy of Winterthur

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published February 14, 2013

Photos to enlarge

Azalea Woods

The sun rises over the meadow at Winterthur.

The Harch Bank

Corylopsis and magnolia

Gorgeous limbs

Strolling the Azalea Woods

Allium in the meadows

Hay fields on hill and dale

Cornus florida, native flowering dofwood

Azaleas and bluebells

H.F. du Pont as an older man walking in the garden as he did for a few hours each day.

H.F. du Pont as a young man in 1915 with the March Bank behind him.

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