Sweat drips generously as I tug at weeds with stubborn roots. Insects are zzzzing in my ear while others eat the flesh of my back. I’m seeing that the fertilizer and water I’ve provided all summer have nourished only the plants I don’t want. Gardening is pleasure?
It is, when you visit Chanticleer, a magical world just an hour and five minutes from Princeton. The 35-acre “pleasure garden” located in Wayne, Pennsylvania, on Philadelphia’s Main Line, is open Wednesdays through Sundays, April through October. Executive director R. William Thomas describes it as an escape from the hassles of everyday life — like my slimy garden hose that wants to water the brick path instead of the kale bed. “Chanticleer allows one to be immersed in beauty,” says Thomas.
Originally the estate of Adolph Rosengarten Sr., whose independent pharmaceutical company merged with Merck & Co., Chanticleer’s rolling hills became a public garden in 1993, at the bequest of Adolph Rosengarten Jr. Before his death in 1990, Adolph Jr. established the Chanticleer Charitable Trust and Foundation to ensure the future of the public garden.
The name Chanticleer — French for rooster — is said to have come from the fictional estate Chanticlere in William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel “The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family.” In homage, sculptural roosters are situated to look out over the gardens.
Chanticleer had me at my first stop — the restroom, with its marble wainscoting and yellow checkerboard tiles. A former garage/barn, it was part of the 1993 infrastructure upgrades to make this a public garden, as well as the circular path throughout the property.
There’s an enticing scent in the air. Public programs manager Erin McKeon tells me it is the ylang ylang, a tropical tree whose essential oil gives off an intoxicating perfume. Ylang ylang is the key ingredient in Chanel No. 5.
First we walk through the Teacup Garden, named for the water feature that was original to the estate — the sound of it rushing is soothing. The challenging thing about gardens is they change. Trees and shrubs outgrow the space into which they were planted and create shade that may crowd out sun-loving plants. And, too, throughout the season, different plants come into their prime. How to manage it all?
A team of seven horticulturalists, six garden assistants, and four groundskeepers work with the constant evolution of the plants, making sure the foliage, form, and texture are in balance. Each of the horticulturalists is responsible for a particular garden, making changes based on successes and failures, and seeking inspiration from their travels. It’s a dream job for the horticulturalists, who are given creative freedom over the gardens they are responsible for, with Thomas making sure the gardens are coordinated.
What do these horticulturalists do during the winter months when the ground freezes over? In addition to planning designs and propagating in greenhouses, they can exercise artistic freedom and create garden furniture, containers, rails, plant boxes, and other features, sometimes with wood from felled trees. (A side note: The Rosengartens were originally attracted to this property because of its chestnut trees, but those succumbed to the chestnut blight in the mid 20th century.)
In spring, before the garden puts on its first flush of color, twigs of dogwood and willow are woven into patterns to create visual interest. One horticulturalist, Joe Henderson, trained in jewelry making, created a scrolling metal garden rail with a rust-like patina.
Like the Barnes Foundation, which doesn’t label its art, Chanticleer does not label its plants. However, visitors can find this information in plant boxes made by the garden artists and on the website. Visitors are encouraged to talk to staff members to get more information on what’s growing.
A goal of Chanticleer staff, says McKeon, is to create something home gardeners can be inspired by, such as different ways to manage lawns. Some areas are mown less frequently, planted with fescue for a meadow effect and to create habitat. This landscape practice uses less fuel and is more sustainable that a lawn that requires watering, weeding, and mowing. Integrated pest management is used, employing minimal pesticides and herbicides on an as-needed basis. Beneficial organisms are propagated, and invasive plants are pulled by hand. Biochar is used as a soil amendment, adding in water retention and nutrient capacity.
When the Rosengarten family had its residence here, the landscape was more pastoral, with large trees, a vegetable garden, and an herbaceous border. After the trust was established in 1990 planting began under the direction of the horticulturists. The board of directors — two-thirds of its members are Rosengarten family descendents — see to it that the garden exists as a historic landscape with a contemporary garden focus.
Despite the loss of the chestnuts, there are quite a number of magnificent old trees dating from the early 1900s. Today they provide welcome shade and beauty.
The property still has the feel of a private estate, and visitors are encouraged to feel like guests of the Rosengarten family, sitting on chairs throughout the grounds, some painted yellow, some chartreuse, some with leopard spots. Who needs summer camp or the Adirondacks with these chairs set strategically for views?
The former clay tennis court has become a garden with four quadrants — perennials, grasses, shrubs, and bulbs. In spring the hill overlooking the court is covered with daffodils and flowering cherries and crabapples.
The two extant houses are architecturally inspired by French chateaus. The administration building — “Emily’s House” — belonged to the Rosengartens’ daughter. The house that belonged to Adolph Jr. was torn down to create “The Ruins” — more on that later. Tours of the main house, listed on the National Register of Historic Homes, are offered Fridays and Saturdays at 11 a.m. Visitors can view works of art and objects that tell the story of how the family lived in the house.
The car park in front of the main house has been turned into a Zen garden with gravel raked in a circular pattern. From the stone terrace one gets a breathtaking view of the entire property. This is a favorite place for plein air painters, who can be seen with their easels alongside the lily pond.
A sun porch, where Mrs. Rosengarten enjoyed sitting, is furnished (chairs by the horticulturists) so visitors can enjoy sitting in its shade. There is a stone fireplace, and each arched window opening provides a painting-like view of the garden.
On the open stone terrace one sees the formal lawn turned into a meadow and planted with Queen Anne’s Lace, verbena, sweet pea, and salvia. The only maintenance required is mowing at the end of the season. Yellow tulips bloom in the spring, followed by sheep fescue that masks the ripening bulb foliage.
A cerulean pool is surround by a tea house and bath house from the 1930s, their copper roofs topped with roosters. Artichokes and passion flowers, figs and hostas, Solomon’s Seal, and Japanese painted ferns tucked in corners and urns combine for a visual orgy.
About those “Ruins.” Chanticleer’s first executive director, Christopher Woods, built a garden folly of stone ruins on top of the foundation of Adolph Jr.’s razed house, deemed to no longer serve a function. Follow a stone path to the hidden retreat, a surprise nestled among the shrubs and trees. En route, encounter a bench made from teak and, alongside it, as if growing from an old tree stump, a shelf mushroom also made of teak — and serving as an actual shelf. Further surprise, it opens and contains plant lists.
Fern, rhododendron, and sweet woodruff line the passageway to the stone ruins, covered with vines and succulents, surrounded by cacti and bamboo and a water feature. There is an old rusty chain suspended from a rafter, containing tiny planters for baby cacti. A stone bench with dragon feet provides a place to rest and take it all in.
Even the slate floor has an intricate design. Every opening in the stone ruins provides another view of the garden. No stone is unturned — a fireplace built into the stonewall has a mantel cascading with succulents.
I put my notebook down to take out my camera and realize the enormous black onyx table I’ve set it on is a reflecting pool. A bird flies in one window and out another.
You could follow the map or just lose yourself, listening to cicadas. Inhaling honeysuckle, now I’m walking on a path of pine needles. There’s even a sculptural drinking fountain and it works. But don’t worry, you can’t get lost — follow the garden path and you’ll be taken to yet another magical oasis. And if you wander off the path and loose your way, a friendly staff member will help redirect you.
Weeds are nowhere to be found, but a mullein is allowed to grow and echinacea, past its prime, still attracts pollinators, as does a hydrangea with white flower heads as large as a sheep’s. There’s movement in a tall border — there’s a gardener in there, pulling stubborn plants that have outgrown their bounds.
A monarch butterfly flutters over a bed of tall flowering plants leading to the vegetable garden, where a staff member tends a row of asparagus. Within a wooden fence, espaliered with apple and pear, are chard, parsley, squash, arugula, and herbs planted in perfect rows, mulched with pine straw and wood ships. Tomatoes, peppers, beets, fennel, and okra — what garden staff don’t use is distributed to food pantries.
Though my own garden has been picked over by deer, ground hogs, Japanese beetles, and mealy bugs, I feel renewed by my visit to Chanticleer. Maybe there is hope for my weed-infested jungle. Or maybe the pleasure is enjoying the fruits of others’ labors.
Visitors to Chanticleer come from as far away as China, combining it with other gardens in the Philadelphia region — “America’s Garden Capital” — with its 31 public gardens, including Longwood Gardens, Bartram’s Garden, and the Morris Arboretum (see www.greaterphiladelphiagardens.org).
A note about rules: Picnicking is allowed and encouraged, but there are no trash bins so visitors must carry out what they bring in. Young visitors receive illustrated books that let them know what they can and cannot do in the garden (for example, no picking the flowers). No pets and no smoking. And, sadly, the garden is not available for wedding rentals or other events. No wedding photographs either, although visitors are welcome to take photographs. No gift shop.
Chanticleer, 786 Church Road, Wayne, Pennsylvania. Open April 1 through November 1, Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Fridays until 8 p.m. through Labor Day. $10, free for pre-teen children. 610-687-4163 or www.chanticleergarden.org.