By Janice F. Booth
Summer is slipping into the golden days of autumn. For some of us, our gardens have given us their best, and now we’re trying to refresh our flowerbeds with pots of bright, fall annuals and careful pruning of tired plants.
Within a few hours’ drive are some of the most renowned and inspiring public gardens on the East Coast. This may be the perfect time to plan a few day-trips with gardening friends or family. Pack a picnic and grab a blanket; set your GPS for one of the lovely gardens that surround us. Be sure you have a notepad with you so you can jot down names of the flowers and shrubs that you’ll find coming into their grandeur this autumn.
I’ve chosen eight gardens to highlight; that should take you well into November. But full disclosure: There are many more lovely, unique gardens. You can easily expand your own list of favorites Starting with our nation’s capital, there are three unique gardens: The National Botanical Gardens, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and the Hillwood Estate Gardens. You could make each garden a day’s adventure, or wander through all three in one, long and memorable day.
◼ The United States Botanic Garden, like the National Arboretum, was established and continues to be funded and managed by the Federal Government. A botanical garden collects, cultivates, and exhibits plant species from regional and exotic locations, something like a living library for horticulturalists. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were amateur botanists and ran successful farms. They encouraged the establishment of a national botanical garden, and by 1820 the project was underway. These three Founding Fathers understood the importance of agriculture and the propagation of plants, both native and imported, that could feed a growing nation.
And that’s where we come in. A fall visit to the site’s Botanical Gardens gives you a great starting point for planning any changes or additions to your own garden in the coming year. Admission is free, and the Botanical Gardens is located just below The Capitol on First Street, SW. Wander through the Garden Court, the Tropics, Plant Adaptations, Garden Primeval, Hawaii, World Deserts, Medicinal Plants, Orchids, Mediterranean, Rare and Endangered Species, Southern Exposure, and the Children’s Garden taking photos and notes of any handsome herb, flower, or shrub that might enliven your own garden (usbg.gov).
◼ Our second stop, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, located in SE Washington, is part of the National Park system. Okay, you may not be prepared to dig up part of your garden to add a lily pond, but it’s fun wandering among the ponds in this 30-acre wetlands. The magnificent lily pads and lotus blossoms may still be blooming in the fall. But even if they’re finished for the year, there are lovely trees, shrubs, cattails, and wild rice bordering the pools. As you walk the trails, you’ll see herons, egrets, geese, frogs, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the resident beaver family (nps.gov).
◼ Our third garden in the District of Columbia, Hillwood Gardens, was the creation of the possessor of one of the largest fortunes of the 20th Century, Marjorie Merriweather Post. When she rebuilt her estate in northwest Washington in the 1950s, Post wanted the gardens of Hillwood to peak in the spring and again in the fall, when she spent time at this residence. The thirteen acres of formal gardens will be in their autumnal glory, just as they would have been when their mistress enjoyed the gardens with her guests. The French Parterre and the Japanese-style garden are charming. And don’t miss the Russian-style dacha decorated with intricate wood-carvings and bright colors; you’ll find it nestled in the woodland garden (hillwoodmuseum.org). If you have the time and inclination, include the mansion during your visit. The collections of Faberge eggs and antique furnishings will delight connoisseurs.
Another region rich in magnificent public gardens is the Brandywine Valley of southeast Pennsylvania. You may have heard of the Longwood and Winterthur Gardens, perhaps you’ve visited there. Like Hillwood, these gardens were lavishly designed and maintained. There are conservatories and woodland paths, Formal, Italianate gardens with elegant fountains and pergolas.
While both Longwood and Winterthur are recognized for their extensive gardens, each around 1000 acres, Longwood Garden’s draw is the botany while Winterthur’s H. F. DuPont mansion, now a museum, is its primary attraction.
The magnificent woodland portion of Longwood’s Garden is not to be missed. Early in the 20th century, Pierre S. Du Pont bought the property to save the trees from logging. You can wander through the seven acres of woods, along paths that take you among old-growth trees dating back, in some cases, to the 1700s. Autumn is a grand time to enjoy the trees’ splendid transformations.
While you’re at Longwood, you may hear the chiming bells of the Carillon. Make your way to the Bell Tower and winding paths of the Hillside Garden. There are lots of places to rest and watch the waterfall tumble past the bell tower and into the pool below (longwoodgardens.org).
◼ Winterthur Museum and Gardens is only a few miles away in the Delaware portion of the lovely Brandywine Valley. Sixty of the properties nearly 1,000 acres are designed gardens. Though smaller and less grand than Longwood’s, the advantage of Winterthur’s gardens is the tram tour led by a knowledgeable guide that will take you through the woodlands and gardens. If walking is a problem, this is the garden for you.
The woodlands at Winterthur are breathtaking. While the trees are not rare or ancient, the variety and the forest-floor plantings are beautiful in spring and fall. In fact, Winterthur notes that the fall color show begins in early September and continues through early November (winterthur.org/visit/garden/whats-in-bloom/fall-color-in-the-garden).
◼ Traveling east from the Brandywine Valley, you approach the Philadelphia region known as the “Main Line,” where families of great fortunes built expansive estates with elegant gardens. One I particularly recommend is Chanticleer Gardens in Wayne, Pennsylvania. While it’s only 48 acres, the 14 full-time gardeners keep the gardens in perfect condition. There are woodlands and meadows, a teacup garden, an Asian garden, and more. The ease of access, with a pretty and convenient parking area, and well-groomed paths and trails, makes it easy to wander without fear of missing something or getting lost. The gardens include little signs identifying plants and trees of particular interest, and there always seems to be a gardener nearby when you have a question.
Now, that’s six. We have two more intriguing gardens to go…
If you don’t mind the traffic around Philadelphia, you’re in for a treat. Visit the 45-acre, National Landmark, Bertram Gardens; there’s no admission fee. The gardens are named for 18th century Quaker botanist John Bertram. Bertram developed a successful, international plant trading and nursery business that supported three generations of Bertrams. In 1850, the business floundered, and the property passed through several hands, finally preserved by Philadelphians and descendants of the Bertram family. Today the garden’s specialty is the propagation of native plants and those discovered by the early Bertram horticulturalists. There’s a fascinating section on medicinal plants focusing on the plants from John Bertram’s 1750 treatise on the subject, published by Benjamin Franklin.
You can check out the garden’s website for the dates of their renowned plant sale; I suspect there will be medicinal plants for sale (bartramsgarden.org).
The last of our Pennsylvania gardens, also with free admission, is the Jenkins Arboretum in Devon, Pennsylvania. A relative newcomer among the public gardens; it’s 46 acres were established as a public garden and arboretum as a memorial to Elizabeth Phillippe Jenkins in 1965. With little over a mile of trails, Jenkins Arboretum is an easy stroll through the woodland area and bog garden. Peek in at the education building and check out some of the Jenkins’ eco-projects. Each year the garden features one or two native plant species to encourage the cultivation and preservation of indigenous plants. Autumn is a good time to visit and enjoy the vistas of valley and streams surrounding the arboretum while you’re there (jenkinsarboretum.org).
The pleasures of your garden travels will, I hope, be varied and memorable. You may not be ready to install a lotus pond or medicinal plants flowerbed, but you may return to your own garden with renewed enthusiasm for the joys and challenges of your bit of Eden.